The 1989 Cougar

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Page Revised: 1 July 2019


Article by
Eric Dess

With the many successes of Ford Motor Company in North America during the 1980s, things were looking great for the company going into the next decade. The surprise hit of the Fox-chassis Thunderbird/Cougar cars, the successful Tempo/Topaz duo, the new flagship Lincoln Mark VII, and the new game-changing Taurus/Sable helped define Ford as a leader in both sales and design in North America. Since the Cougar and Thunderbird were one of the early successes, it came as no surprise that Ford wanted to up the game for their next versions, slated for the late 1980s.

On paper, this new version seemed like a great evolution of both car marques, and with their pedigree and reputations solidified, there was enough room to warrant a radical move forward. Whether or not this was the wisest decision is still up for debate. But the benefit of hindsight tell us the facts that we all now know: a heavier base platform, underwhelming power from the start, the shrinking midsize coupe market, and the strong surge of SUV sales made for a rather lethal combination for these cars. The worst part is that, while quite good cars in all respects, they were forced to languish on their own in that dying market for years without major overhauls or power infusions—or support from Ford. The fact that they sold on their own merits is testimony to the quality and engineering built into the cars.

The Platform

As early as 1984, officials at Ford began pondering the next versions of the Cougar and Thunderbird. The goal was to create an all-new, world-class rear-wheel-drive chassis that could compete with the more elite RWD cars of the world (read: BMW). This would require a shift to a fully independent rear suspension (IRS). The main competition, which included GM's G-body cars (Buick Regal, Olds Cutlass, Pontiac Grand Prix, Chevy Monte Carlo/Lumina) and the Chrysler Lebaron, were simultaneously readying their switch to front-wheel-drive chassis, while also gaining IRS. But Ford was committed to RWD due to its balanced handling dynamics. The team working on this program, code named MN12 (M for midsize coupe, N for North America, 12 for the project number), were given a laundry list of tasks, all of which seemed perfectly plausible on paper, but the end result had a major flaw: vehicle weight grew by several hundred pounds and there was no practical way to shave that weight off. The projected power output would not be able to overcome this added heft, something that could more easily be dealt with in today's world, but at the time was of major dissonance. The entire MN12 project was delayed at least once, coming to market in late 1988 as a 1989 model, and late at that. (A later spinoff platform, the FN10, was given exclusively to the Lincoln Mark VIII in 1993, and was essentially the MN12 platform with aluminum components instead of heavier steel). In public Ford lauded the US $2 billion program at its launch, but privately the company incurred its wrath on the MN12 project team, firing several personnel and giving a shot across the bow for the remaining team members: keep this program on track, shave weight, and handle what you're dealt.

The goal for the Cougar and Thunderbird was to create an all-new, world-class rear-wheel-drive chassis that could compete with the more elite RWD cars of the world.

On the positive side, the wheelbase grew a full 9" to a total of 113". This extra length went primarily into rear leg room. The platform was wider but shorter, creating less overhang behind the wheels. The fuel tank was moved to the front of the rear axle for better weight distribution and safety.

Up front, a new short/long arm suspension with modified MacPherson struts was in order. The whole underside of the car was carefully designed for the smallest possible driveshaft tunnel, and precise routing of the exhaust system, for an almost totally flat underside, minimizing aerodynamic lift.

The aforementioned independent rear suspension was naturally the highlight of the car. This was an ambitious move for Ford because there was no real impetus for ordering an IRS-spec platform other than bragging rights. At the time of its launch there were less than a handful of rear-drive cars sold in the U.S. with an IRS setup. Of course, better handling was the goal and the IRS truly delivered in that department, making the old live axle a distant memory.

Ford 3.8L Supercharged V6


The biggest news was that, for the first time in Cougar history, no V8 engine would be offered in 1989 (nor 1990). The lowered cowl of the new MN12 chassis did not allow the traditional 5.0L (302 cid) V8 to clear the hood; engineers would continue to work on getting the V8 to fit without a power decrease and finally get it into the cars for 1991. In the meantime, the base engine was the 140hp 3.8L (232 cid) V6, previously used in the last model year's Cougar but without the former engine's balance shaft. The XR7, however, received the all-new supercharged 3.8L V6, putting out a respectable 210hp @ 4000 rpm and a massive 315 lb-ft of torque @ 2600 rpm. The standard transmission for both engines was the venerable AOD 4-speed overdrive automatic (beefed up on the XR7 model). Optional on the XR7 was a Mazda-derived M5R2 5-speed manual transmission. This truck transmission was chosen because it could handle the supercharged 3.8's torque much better than a standard Ford T-5 manual.


The Cougar was to retain a formal notchback-style roofline, waterfall grille, and the vertical bar theme in the taillights.

Early in the design stages it was decided to further differentiate the Cougar from the Thunderbird. Since the Cougar's controversial formal notchback-style roofline was so successful, designers decided to keep it, and give the T-Bird an even more swept back back window than the Fox T-Bird. Also, since profit margins were higher, the two cars now did not have to share some body panels such as bumpers, headlight configurations, or hoods (although they did share fenders and most of the glass). The Cougar was also to retain a formal waterfall grille (where the T-Bird went grille-less), and the vertical bar theme in the taillights that started with the 1987 Cougar went a little further, with Mercury's signature black faded-bar look of the late 1980s. The "C"-pillar window was now squared off to give a bit more side visibility. The flanks were more slab-sided, with a tasteful body line running along the bottom section of the car. The short deck, long hood look also carried over. The rear taillight section, when viewed from the side, gently curved around. The cowl height was significantly decreased as well, resulting in greater sight from the windshield. Visually, the squared off corners allowed the car to look much bigger than it actually was, and helped keep the Cougar's formal-looking shape. In fact, the car was lower and shorter than that outgoing 1988 model. Interestingly, the coefficient of drag went up slightly to 0.37.

Two Model System

Per the tradition beginning in 1987, two models would continue: the base luxury-oriented LS, and the high-performance XR7. Marketing surveys also played a major factor in the features of the new cars. The list of standard equipment was rather lengthy on both models: air conditioning, power windows, tinted glass, dual power mirrors, delay wipers, speed-sensitive electronic variable-assist power steering, and power brakes.

Also, carrying on its recent tradition, 1989 marked the first of a two-year cycle for the styling. The 1990 Cougars would be nearly identical.

Both the Cougar and the Thunderbird were built exclusively at the Lorain, Ohio, USA assembly plant, the same as the previous Fox-chassis cars.

The Launch

The MN12 Cougar and Thunderbird were introduced to the public on December 26, 1988 (one of several "good luck" launch dates for Ford). Sales were mostly positive for both cars. The quality of the cars did not go unnoticed—Motor Trend magazine named the 1989 Thunderbird Super Coupe as its "Car of the Year", narrowly beating out the Cougar XR7 for the title. Since the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe had just won the same award in 1987, some Cougar fans were a little miffed. And rightly so: the award would probably have helped sales of the XR7. Nonetheless, the spotlight was on still Ford and having two cars in the running was still a tremendous feat.

1989 Mercury Cougar LS

Cougar LS

On the outside, the Cougar LS model was noted for the bright trim surrounding the windows, taillights, and molding. Standard were 15" rims with hubcaps; a handsome 15" sport rim was also available.

The 1989 Cougar LS Dash

The dash was still traditional in layout, and strongly resembled that of the outgoing Cougar. But with a wider chassis, Ford was able to take advantage of the extra space and create a dash that, while not breathtaking, was at least proper in form and function. A full digital instrument cluster greeted the driver with plenty of information at a quick glance. At no one's surprise, a more intuitive push-pull headlight switch was reintroduced. Climate control vents were more logically placed. Storage bins were a welcome touch. All cars (LS and XR7 alike) had full consoles with floor shifter. Materials were again of very good quality. The rather sensually-shaped steering wheel was handsomely adorned with a woodgrain appliqué.

Just about the only major factor of the Cougar's interior that did not sit well with many consumers was the motorized lap belts. Ford had originally slated the Cougar and Thunderbird to have air bags for the new MN12 chassis in 1989, well ahead of federal mandates and the competition alike. But, marketing research showed that dual air bags were not a desirable option back then, particularly since they were not required until the 1994 model year, so Ford decided not to install them (being overbudget almost certainly had something to do with it also). However, some sort of active restraint system was federally mandated for 1989 so motorized belts got the nod. Also of some fairly critical reception was the use of chrome buttons for nearly everything inside the car; some reviewers thought they looked cheap. Ford designed black switches for the 1991 model year as a result.

1989 Cougar Glovebox Unique for the 1989-90 Cougars and Thunderbirds was this secondary glove box atop the passenger side of the dashboard.
1989 Cougar LS Taillights The traditional Mercury "shaver" taillights, first seen on the 1967 Cougar, became more modernized in the 1980s, and designers captured that essence with the "laser stripe" motif. The LS featured a handsome brushed aluminum background.

1989 Mercury Cougar XR7

Cougar XR7

The XR7 once again carried a monochromatic paint scheme, available in Black, Bright Red, and Oxford White. The trim was blacked out, and the grille and outside mirrors were body color. A special "XR7" emblem adorned the fender behind the front wheel well opening, and the "SUPERCHARGED" letters appeared on the side molding directly below the emblem.

The interior was also all-new, with standard digital gauges in the LS, and analog gauges for the XR7. The dash panels were woodgrain (simulated) in the LS, and silver butcher-block style in the XR7. Also, there were two different steering wheels for the two different models. The XR7 had a special "XR7 SUPERCHARGED" emblem on its steering wheel center. All Cougar models now featured sport bucket seats with console and floor shifter as standard equipment. For the first time, an optional in-dash factory CD player was available.

Ford was serious about the performance aspect of the XR7, and it spared no option when building it. Everything that the new Thunderbird Super Coupe had, the XR7 also shared—adjustable sport tuned suspension, standard anti-lock brakes with 4-wheel discs, uplevel interior, and 16" tires standard. It was truly a driver's car, with a spacious interior and luxurious appointments, and a tenacity for being pushed through curves.

Published reports put the XR7 from 0-60mph at around 8.3 seconds, and the quarter mile at 16.45 seconds @ 87.8mph. The big Cat also pulled .83 g on the skidpad.

1989 Cougar XR7 Folding Rear Seat The XR7 featured an optional folding rear seat to allow access to the trunk and permit longer items from the trunk to pass through to the interior. This feature required leather seats.
1989 Cougar Trunk The new chassis design allowed for a much lower liftover into the luggage compartment.
1989 Cougar XR7 Taillights The XR7 had a red reflector behind the nomenclature on the taillamps.
1989 Cougar XR7 Molding External XR7 badging and "SUPERCHARGED" molding instantly set this model apart from the LS.

1989 IMSA GTO Cougar

Racing Return

Undoubtedly a push to get the word out about the all-new Cougar, Mercury sanctioned the big Cat for IMSA GT racing in the GTO class. Previous cars included the Merkur XR4Ti and Ford Mustang. The Cougar body lent itself very well to the racing series, and the teams were so successful that they won the championship in both 1989 and 1990. For more information about the IMSA GTO Cougars please click here.


For only having a partial model year on the market, sales were surprisingly strong for the new Cougar right from the start. Customers were eager to get into the new body style and to try out the handling of the all-new chassis, with a level of sophistication not achieved before.

This was certainly an exciting time for Ford Motor Company, for the fruits of all their labor was now beginning to pay off. Profit margins allowed them to sink considerable amounts of money into new platforms and engines. And, already in the works, was the new "modular" overhead camshaft family of engines that Ford would use in all its vehicles beginning in the early-to-mid 1990's. The death knell for the traditional Ford pushrod V8 was in its infancy. But for now, at least, the Thunderbird and Cougar were given a new lease on life as the ultimate American personal luxury coupe.


LS - 3.8 (232 cid) V6; 140 hp @ 3800 rpm; 215 lb-ft torque @ 4000 rpm
XR7 - 3.8 supercharged V6; 210 hp @2400 rpm; 315 lb-ft torque @ 2600 rpm
LS - AOD 4-speed automatic with overdrive
XR7 (standard) - M5R2 Mazda 5-speed manual
XR7 (optional automatic) - AOD 4-speed automatic with overdrive
LS - Front 10.8" disc, rear 9.8" drum
Optional - Front 10.8" disc, rear 10.0" disc with antilock brakes
XR7 - Front 10.8" disc, rear 10.0" disc with antilock brakes
Wheelbase - 113"
Overall Length - 198.7"
Overall Width - 72.7"
Overall Height - 52.7"
Cargo Capacity - 14.7 cubic feet
Fuel Capacity - 19.0 gallons
LS - 3570 lb.
XR7 (w/5 speed) - 3776 lb.
XR7 (w/auto) - 3794 lb.


  • 97,246
  • 92,466
  • 2,679
  • 2,101


LS Model

XR7 Model