At the Sign of the Cat

Bob Elton
by Bob Elton
at the sign of the cat

Remember the Cougar? Not the oddly-shaped front-wheel drive Cougar of 2000 nor the big-bodied Thunderbird clone, nor even, God forbid, the huge sedans and wagons wearing “the sign of the cat,” but the 1967 original? Motor Trend’s Car of the Year was created from the Mustang. While it shared the Pony Car’s platform, it was NOT a badge-engineering model. Sales of the luxurious new coupe helped to lead the Blue Oval to some of the most profitable years in the company’s history. Hello? Ford? Anyone home?

It’s been a couple of years since the latest generation Mustang hit the streets. The retro modern two-door is a runaway success, easily out-selling the nondescript sedans that have become Ford’s standard bearers. At the same time, the Mercury brand languishes, offering customers nothing more than thinly-disguised Ford sedans and trucks. It’s time, past time, for the new Mercury Cougar. Stretch the new Mustang platform, drape it with drop-dead gorgeous sheetmetal, stuff it full of luxury (and a hundred pounds more sound insulation) and there you have it: a slam dunk sales winner and a halo car for a moribund brand.

In fact, there’s only one way a new Cougar wouldn’t work: if Ford re-sculpts the ‘Stang’s front and rear, tacks on some brightwork and badges the Mustang as a Cougar. That Milanese-style product would dilute the Mustang’s appeal AND fail to create a compelling reason for luxury car buyers to darken Mercury’s already dim door. An ersatz Cougar would drag the brand’s street cred even lower– if such a thing was possible. No; while a new Cougar would bring glory to a deeply wounded brand, it must be done right, or not at all.

A Cougar absolutely demands arresting styling. Since Ford’s hometown designers seem singularly incapable of creating anything other than boring and innocuous cars, why not call in Aston Design Director Marek Reichman, the man who penned the sublime Aston Martin Rapide? As PETA and other animal rights activists have made it virtually impossible for a big cat to work in the ad business, Mercury could make the Brit-born designer the brand’s official spokesman. “Aston Martin elegance made in America” would be a winning slogan.

Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to spend some quality seat time in a Land Rover, or a top-spec F150, knows that Ford can make great interiors. To produce a suitably luxurious Cougar, Ford could add luxury touches to the Mustang’s cockpit that aren’t available in the ‘Stang: automatic temperature control, twilight sentinel headlights, memory seats, sat nav and all the other luxury car necessities. Ford knows exactly how to do all these things, and I’m sure that they have the hardware on the Lincoln shelf to boot. If the new Cougar wants a “killer ap,” they could even fit it with a Borg-Warner dual-clutch paddle-shift transmission (a.k.a. Audi’s DSG).

A new Cougar could be Mercury’s re-entry into racing. If the Ford Fusion and a Toyota Camry can be NASCAR racers, surely the Cougar could be as well. Perhaps LeMans would be a better venue. After all, that’s where Aston Martin made their reputation. If Corvettes and Vipers can make a credible attempt, surely a Cougar, with the right preparation, could at least make a showing. The combination of a stunning design and the hype of a [properly promoted] racing effort would ramp up the excitement at Mercury dealerships to unseen levels.

Equally important, a “real” Cougar wouldn’t be a horrifically expensive endeavor for the cash-strapped domestic automaker. There’s nothing wrong with the Mustang platform that a little refinement couldn’t cure. Adding the aforementioned four inches to the wheel base would give the coupe passable rear seat room. The Mustang GT already has a two-piece driveshaft, so lengthening drive shafts shouldn’t pose a problem. Ford’s 4.6-liter, 300-horse, 24-valve V8 would be more than adequate. (The new Shelby GT500 powerplant would be a bonus.) All the engine really needs is a little more muffler, a little less intake and a lot more purr. And there’s plenty of room at the new AutoAlliance International assembly plant in Flat Rock, Michigan to build a “real” Cougar.

If Mercury had a Cougar, it might begin to look like the brand has a future, instead of simply surviving on life-support from Ford. It’s not a question of whether or not there’s a market for a “proper” American luxury coupe; there are more than enough foreign players in this niche to prove its potential viability. It’s not a question of money; a new Cougar needn’t start from scratch. It’s a question of will. When a brand loses its luster within the Ford Empire, it lacks champions to snatch back the resources it needs to grow. In car manufacture as in life, everything either grows or dies. Over to you Mr. Bill.

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  • Ricers suck Ricers suck on Jun 15, 2006

    I agree with ktm that it should have irs, and bob too that it should be stretched for a livable back seat, the cougar should have irs, styling from the iosis concept or the mercury messenger concept, it should have an uprated v8 (maybe the 4 valve lincoln unit w/320 hp). A possibility to further differentiate it is to have it be a hard top (folding metal...or maybe even that glass roof from the mark x concept) convertible. Have only one option on the cougar automatic (w/ manual controls), or manual transmission, everything else (fancy sound system, leather, real aluminium/wood trim, 18" wheels, navigation system, auto climate control etc...) should be standard. In fact, what ford could do with this is mix and match interior components/switch gear from all it's other brands...i.e. volvo's slim center console etc... Mercury has a chance for a hit, lets hope ford doesnt screw it up.

  • Sajeev Mehta Sajeev Mehta on Jun 15, 2006

    ktm, Agreed on the wheelbase, the Mustang is already portly. The next Mustang needs to be smaller, and the Cougar needs the current frame. A torque-laden 300hp 4.6L Cougar gets similar fuel economy (Infinitis are hardly fuel sippers) and could very well smoke it in most every dynamic test, solid axle aside. Muscle cars are hot these days, we just need one with non-retro style for broader appeal.

  • Wjtinfwb Didn't care for the E60 when introduced, compared to the previous generation. But up against some of BMW's latest offerings (new 7), it's a breath of fresh air. This car with a conventional 6-speed manual would be another 10-15k at least as it looks very well kept.
  • SPPPP Very nice shape, but I just never warmed to the E60 car like I did the earlier generations of the 5-series, or the contemporary 3-series.
  • Mike Beranek They're building a brand-new "vending machine" in Schaumburg, right on my way home from work. Maybe after they go belly up, I could buy it, build out living space on the top floor, and use the rest to display my awesome car collection (ha!)
  • VoGhost We're at the point where the stock price is no longer relevant; focus on how the debt is priced.
  • MaintenanceCosts Nice color combo. Worth noting that this is not a conventional automatic but an automated manual, which gets you all the roughness of a real manual with none of the fun. Also not sure why everyone loves the V10 so much; it sounds more UPS truck than performance car except at the extreme high end of the tach. Having said that the E60's looks have aged VERY well; the car looks nicer now than it did when it was new.
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