Cougar is the "un-Mercury." It not only looks young and athletic, it performs that way, with a firm ride, youthful agility and commendable road grip.
Cougar is a front-wheel-drive sports coupe that arrived for 1999 as the first production model with Ford's new-edge styling, which features creases and crisp lines instead of curves and rounded shapes.
One of Cougar's missions is to attract new, younger buyers to the Mercury brand, and it apparently is succeeding. More than half of Cougar buyers had never been to a Lincoln Mercury dealership before, and a sizeable number are in their 20s and 30s.
Cougar uses the same basic architecture as the Mercury Mystique and similar Ford Contour. Mercury stopped building the Mystique in December 1999, and the Contour fades away at the end of the model year. Cougar, however, will remain in the lineup.
Mercury announced recently it will add a high-performance Cougar S model in the spring with a 200-horsepower V-6, a firmer suspension, 16-inch wheels and tires, leather upholstery and heated front seats.
Though the Cougar is related to the Mystique and Contour sedans, it shares no body panels with either. Its distinctive styling nearly hides the fact that it is a two-door hatchback instead of a coupe with a separate trunk. The front end features a small grille between the wraparound projector-beam headlamps and a large air intake below the bumper.
Cougar holds four passengers, with a pair of front buckets and a rear seat shaped for two people. The rear seat is split 50/50 and folds for extra cargo space, with releases for the seatbacks accessed from the rear of the vehicle. The dashboard has attractive white-on-gray gauges that are well lit and easy to read at night.
Under the Hood
The same engine lineup found in the Mystique is available here. Base engine is a 125-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder. A 2.5-liter V-6 with 170 horsepower is optional, and both engines team with a manual or automatic transmission.