Graded – Mercury Cougar

Welcome to Graded. Here we discuss legendary marques, models, or trim packages and affix a letter grade to a selection of vehicles falling under that topic. The grades mean nothing and are completely arbitrary. I fully encourage you to tell me what I got wrong and how you would grade them instead. Have some fun with it.

This week we are looking at one of the best known, best-selling model lines from defunct American automotive manufacturer Mercury. We are grading Cougars. Ok, I probably could have worded that better, but for over 30 years the Cougar model lineup was not just a staple in the Mercury portfolio, but also one of the brand’s best sellers.

Beginning life as a pony car before transforming into a large sport coupe and ultimately ending up as a front wheel drive compact, the Cougar was always an alternative to the more mainstream Fords. We have assembled 10 notable vehicles from the model’s history and affixed a letter grade to each one.

And once again this week I am honoured to have a guest judge, James Creech. James is a tax attorney and car guy.  His grandfather drove a Crown Vic and he still has his Mustang from high school. As he states, writing about cars is much more fun than writing about the Employee Retention Tax Credit.  

1967 Mercury Cougar XR-7 Marauder GT 390

AutoLobotomy Grade: A

The original Cougar was a corporate sibling to the Ford Mustang. It was the ying to the Mustang’s yang. The most powerful model for 1967 was the Marauder GT 390 making a healthy 320 hp. Hot take alert – I personally prefer the looks of this Cougar over the Mustang.

James Grade: B+

This car is what Ford intended the Cougar to be a classy coupe for the guy who liked speed but couldn’t show up to the country club in a Mustang.  It gets a half grade point bump because it sold well enough for the FoMoCo bean counters to continue Cougar production for the next 20 years and a world without Mercury Cougars is a slightly less interesting place to live.  However, it loses a full grade because every time you drive it you have to explain what it is or you get cornered by someone who wants to tell you about their brother in law that had one with a 350 Chevy motor in it that would do 160 in the quarter mile.

1969 Mercury Cougar Eliminator 302

AutoLobotomy Grade: A+

For 1969 the Cougar received minor restyling and a few new trim levels. The Eliminator 302 was essentially a Mustang BOSS 302 and my personal favourite Cougar of all time. I love the looks of this car and its all-around performance for its time.

James Grade: A-

The only reason for the minus is the simple question, for the same price would you rather have this or a Boss 302 Mustang?  The easy answer is the Mustang because Parnelli Jones drove a Trans Am Boss 302 Mustang in 1969.  Aside from having to compete against it’s FoMoCo cousin there is a lot to like here a high revving V8, heavy duty suspension, and a smug feeling that your car is rarer than your neighbor’s Pontiac with a chicken on the hood. 

1971 Mercury Cougar XR-7 429

AutoLobotomy Grade: A-

The second-generation Cougar had fresh styling that further differentiated it from its corporate sibling, the Mustang. Available for the 1971 model year was the big-block 429 cu. in Cobra Jet V8 making 370 hp. Although I do not like this styling as much, it is hard to argue with a big-block V8.

James Grade: A

I like to think of the big block Cougars as cars for anti social speed freaks.  You don’t want a Chevy or a Ford because people will talk to you about their car and the Mopar cars are trying too hard.  The 429 has tons of grunt and showing your taillights to someone in an LS6 Chevelle is the perfect way to ruin their weekend.  

1975 Mercury Cougar XR-7 460

AutoLobotomy Grade: C

The third generation Cougar moved away from the Mustang and became more of a personal luxury coupe. It was now built on the same platform as the Ford Torino. Despite the crippling fuel crisis, in 1975 the Cougar could still be had with a massive 460 cu. in. V8 making 216 hp. It may not sound like much, but it was decent for those dark, dark days.

James Grade: C+

But only because we need room on the grading scale to go lower.  Just as a side note I can’t help feel sorry for the young professional car guy in the early 70’s.  Maybe you could make the budget work to buy a 1971 Challenger but it’s not the prudent thing to do so you wait until the next promotion.  By the time that happens all the cars have gotten fat and slow.  Bummer right?

1978 Mercury Cougar Brougham 6.6L

AutoLobotomy Grade: D+

Now a corporate twin of the Ford Thunderbird, the Cougar continued to soldier on as more of a personal luxury coupe than a performance vehicle. Those that did want a bit of performance could opt for the 6.6L V8 engine making a sad 166 hp. The Brougham model did try to spice things up a bit with optional T-tops.

James Grade: D-

400 cubic inches producing 166hp and 15mpgs 0-60 in 12.3 seconds. The definition of malaise

1980 Mercury Cougar XR-7 Sports

AutoLobotomy Grade: D

The Cougar was further downsized for the fifth generation and lost a lot of its personality. These were the dark days for the car as it became just another car available as a coupe, sedan or even station wagon. There was still somewhat of a nod to performance with the XR-7 Sports coupe, but it was more of a name than any real performance.

James Grade: D

Same 0-60 as the 6.6l but fewer 98 cubic inches.  A bad car but there are some glimmers of hope with the introduction of the 302.  Period ads mention the available Recaro seats which is cool.  Still it’s a slow malaise coupe that doesn’t capture the imagination like a 1980 Lincoln Continental with vinyl top and white wall tires. 

1985 Mercury Cougar XR-7

AutoLobotomy Grade: C+

Things began to get interesting again with the sixth generation Cougar. The XR-7 featured the same turbocharged four-cylinder engine as the Mustang SVO and could even be had with a manual transmission. The Cougar may have still been a large coupe, but the performance had returned to a degree.

James Grade: C

Fox body, Mustang SVO motor, available manual transmission.  Still mid 80s build quality.  This is the first Cougar since the early 70’s where if you hear someone’s late Uncle had one when he passed away you might be tempted to say that you are potentially interested in buying the car. 

1989 Mercury Cougar XR-7

AutoLobotomy Grade: B

Building on what had started with the sixth-generation car, the seventh generation Cougar swapped the turbocharged four-cylinder engine for a more powerful 210 hp supercharged V6. Once again it could be had with a manual transmission (initially at least) and was a proper sporty coupe. I also like the understated looks of this car.

James Grade: B-

Available with a 210hp supercharged V6 and a manual transmission thanks to the corporate parts bin.  A car with character that looks best in red or black (Thunderbirds are still better looking in my book and don’t run the risk of being confused with a Buick Reatta).  Still loses lots of points for mass market 1980’s Ford quality.

1994 Mercury Cougar XR-7

AutoLobotomy Grade: B-

Although a V8 had returned to the lineup a few years earlier, the 1994 refresh brought about the more powerful 4.6-liter V8. That V8 rumble may have returned to the lineup, but the manual transmission died with the supercharged V6. The Cougar was once again more personal luxury coupe than performance coupe.

James Grade: C+

I can’t think of any Ford of this era (including my Mustang) without thinking about Mary Walton’s fascinating book Car: A Drama of the American Workplace which is about the design and launch of the 1996 Taurus.  Knowing some background it is impossible to look at the interior and not think about how many pennies per car Ford saved with all the cheap switches.

1999 Mercury Cougar Sport V6

AutoLobotomy Grade: B-

This one is hard to grade as it was completely different than any Cougar that came before it. But on its own merit, when this coupe arrived, it was so advanced looking from a styling perspective. It turned heads everywhere it went. And it had a 170 hp V6 engine mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. Not bad for a car weighing under 2,900 lbs.

James Grade: D

Contemporary reviews note a high idle at a stoplights and awful seats.  Instead of a classy Mustang this Cougar is a Contour with a “look at me” body kit which is the opposite of the 1971 Cougar XR-7 429.  Sure it got more than 10mpg and did better in a crash test but sometimes progress isn’t really progress.

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