Motoring: Ford's big cat's got good looks but no claws

The Cougar has a great ad (Dennis Hopper reliving Easy Rider) and eye-catching styling. But how does it drive?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
FIRST THERE was the Ford Capri, the car (as the admen insisted) you always promised yourself. It sold briskly, wore out three suits of clothes, and made pots of money. After its demise, Ford did without a coupe until 1994, when the US-built Probe was imported to despatch Vauxhall's pretty Calibra. It wasn't a bad car, the Probe, but it wasn't an especially memorable one, either. It didn't capture the mood of the nation as the Capri had done. Serious drivers spurned it (as they did the now defunct Calibra). Sales bombed.

Now we have the Cougar - Ford's third middleweight coupe since the late Sixties. Just as the rear-drive Capri was a dressed-up Cortina, so the Cougar, mid-Atlantic in style and flavour, is a Mondeo in drag. And there's nothing wrong with that, given the Mondeo's qualities.

Ford's bold "new edge" design, first seen in the Ka, later adopted for the Puma (Cougar's kid brother) and the mainstream Focus, well suited the adventurous Cougar. A coupe without style is a coupe without point. However, "new edge" - think of it as definition by intersecting arcs - does tend to polarise opinions, so the Cougar is not to everyone's liking. Aggressively faced and curiously scalloped, it has head-turning presence, but not the breathtaking elegance of Peugeot's 406 coupe - one of several rivals that are not going to make it easy for the Cougar.

Dynamically, the range-topping 2.5 V6 (there is also a 2.0 "four"), struggles to make the grade against more powerful opposition. The 140mph V6 is no sluggard, but it sounds more exciting than it feels when accelerating. Not that there is anything mild-mannered about the smooth, wailing engine's delivery - best exploited by indulgent use of a slick gearchange. What the hefty Cougar needs (and will probably get) is the Mondeo ST200's more powerful 200bhp engine. But even with the present 168bhp screamer, economy is indifferent if you exploit the performance.

After the Focus that I drove the same day, the Cougar's handling and steering felt a bit remote and life-less. Competent yes, uplifting no. Generous tyres push up cornering powers and safety margins - reinforced by sophisticated anti-lock brakes and traction control which protect against wheelspin and skids. Standard equipment includes two airbags, leather upholstery, air-conditioning (or sunroof) alloy wheels and cruise control.

The 2.5 V6 wants for little in the way of kit. By coupe standards, it is also roomy, more a full four-seater than a two-plus-two. A brickbat for powered front seats that don't support as well as they should, bouquets for a fully adjustable steering wheel and stylish dash.

While the Cougar may lack that spark of genius which distinguishes the cheaper Focus, Ford's new middleweight coupe is, if not a memorable driving experience, at least an enjoyable means of transport. And boy, do the neighbours notice.

SPECIFICATIONS

FORD COUGAR 2.5 V6

Price: pounds 21,000

Engine: 2544cc, six cylinders, 24 valves, 168bhp at 6250rpm

Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 140mph, 0-60 in 8.3sec, 29.4mpg combined cycle

RIVALS

Alfa Romeo GTV 3.0 V6: pounds 27,795. Striking looks, great engine, faster than Ford. A gem.

Fiat Coupe 2.0 20V Turbo: pounds 22,825. Testosterone on a budget. Stonking performance, great to drive, striking looks.

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