It may not have been the best of cars, but it also was certainly not the worst of cars. While working my college job at Ford Credit, I arranged for my mother to purchase a brand-new, five-speed 1993 Topaz GS coupe for the modest sum of $8995 after all discounts and rebates. Over the next eleven years, she put 97,000 miles on the car. Her Ford “ESP” warranty covered the very few repairs it required up to the 60,000-mile mark, and it required nothing after that besides a set of tires and the occasional oil change.
It was a good, solid car, always starting in the winter, holding up to Mom’s indifferent attitude regarding carwashes (once a season) and interior cleanings (once a year) and surviving three different low-speed impacts with little cosmetic damage. Fuel mileage was reliably in the high twenties and it went to its next owner without so much as a single spot of rust.
Still, if one had to make a case against “the car that killed Mercury”, the Topaz would be, if not on trial, at least standing in the lineup of potential perps. Here’s why.
The Ford “Distempo” and Mercury “Slopaz” were variants of Ford’s “Erica” platform. The first Erica car was the 1981 Escort. Here’s a picture of a 1981 Honda Civic.
Twelve years later, the Tempo and Topaz were still occupying significant space and expected to occupy significant sales volume for Ford and Mercury dealers. Here’s a picture of a 1993 Civic.
Not pictured: the two major-revision generations of Civics available for sale between those two. You get the idea. Ford took their eye off the ball and focused instead on bringing products like the Explorer to market.
The Topaz could have used a few updates to help it fight the Civic, but instead FoMoCo decided to cut content and model variety for 1993. The base engine was the woeful, ninety-six-horsepower, pushrod-operated 2.3L eight-valver, nearly unchanged from the model’s 1984 debut. The all-wheel-drive powertrain was dropped, the sporting XR5 and LTS models disappeared, and the options list shrank dramatically. It wasn’t possible to get power windows on the two-door cars! Despite this, the Tempo and Topaz combined for over 230,000 units that year.
The best way to describe the Topaz driving experience would probably be “basic”. The shifter was long and sloppy, the brakes were indifferent, and power was meager. Steering feel was light and imprecise, and there was considerable pitch-and-roll from the suspension. The HVAC was strong, and the stereo wasn’t horrible. Seating was not sporty but was comfortable enough for front-seat passengers. The rear seat was occasional-use at best. While the Tempo/Topaz were supposed to have more room inside than the ’81 Escort, in practice the driving position and usable space were very similar.
How did Ford sell 230,000 units of a car that closely resembled the 1981 Escort, which itself was not particularly ahead of the curve on its initial release? The answer was pricing. I wrote the financing for a lot of Tempo and Topaz sales that year, and very few of them were sold for over eleven grand. Ten flat was about right, with an extra five hundred bucks for an automatic. The Mazda-based Mercury Tracer, nominally below the Topaz in the model lineup, actually cost more and had much less rebate money available.
The vast majority of Topazes were sold in “GS” trim, with a free Sport Appearance Package that added high-polish 14″ aluminum wheels. It wasn’t an ugly car, really, but it was just soooo outdated. I recommended one to my mother because I knew she didn’t drive much and I thought she would have an easier time getting in and out of the relatively tall and easy-to-access two-door.
It’s one thing for a Ford to sell on price. It’s quite another thing for a Mercury to sell on price, and the endless “DRIVE A NEW MERCURY FOR UNDER TEN GRAND!” ads in local newspapers across the country certainly didn’t do a lot for brand equity. The Contour and Mystique arrived in late ’94 to reclaim the segment for Ford, but those cars had their own problems and the Topaz buyers didn’t like the idea of paying $15,000 to replace the cars they’d purchased for just a little more than half that sum a few years before.
It seems difficult to believe, but when the Topaz arrived in 1984, Mercury was still a bit of a premium brand. Reading the Escort and Lynx brochures of the day makes this plain; the Lynx was equipped to a measurably plusher level than the ‘Scort. By the time the last Topaz was delivered, Mercury was a shiny badge and nothing more. It seems harsh to point the finger at a friendly, jellybean-shaped little sedan, but I don’t know where else to put the blame.
I sold Mom’s Topaz for $600 to a friend’s father. He’d come out of a program to treat his alcoholism and we both thought the Topaz could be his ticket to work, recovery, and a better life. Two weeks later, he arrowed the green Mercury into a lightpost at a speed sufficient to knock the engine out of its mounts. Mom’s new whip was a Hyundai Elantra. I expected it to match the Topaz for reliability, but instead it proved to be a four-year trip through an ever-increasing series of minor (but expensive) repairs. In January of 2008, I called a halt to the Korean experiment and put Mom in a new Focus SES sedan. “It’s very sporty,” she reports, “just like the Topaz.”