The cars we loved.
Where have all the moderately price sporty coupes gone? The few affordable ones like the Scion Tc or Hyundai Elantra Sport are uninspiring. While the FRS/BRZ are exciting, they are priced in such a way that approaches the more Hyundai Genesis and Honda Accord coupes. It wasn’t always this way. As early as 1982, Ford had small coupes (that were not Escorts or Mustangs) that aimed to capture a market that overlooked cars like the Mustang. It would be a revolving door for Ford as it considered its options in an ever changing market.
Those changes would keep much of the ’80s and ’90s interesting for those in the market for a sporty car. The late ’80s to mid ’90s was the golden age for this kind of small to medium sized affordable coupe. Many had turned to front wheel drive and even the American made ones were switching to dual overhead cams and multi-valve configurations – usually with four cylinders. The move towards more efficient ency would eventually threaten the old guard of American muscle cars. Ford considered replacing the Mustang with a front drive compact that would be called the Probe. A reality check courtesy of massive protest and letter writing campaigns, forced Ford to instead develop its Probe alongside the Mustang, but in the mode of a modern Japanese sports coupe.
The Probe went outside the typical turbocharged 16 valve DOHC template that had become so popular with Japanese cars. Instead, it along with MX6 of which it shared a platform, aimed higher with a V6. The advantage being the smooth low end power delivery in real life situations. In some ways the Probe was America’s answer to the Opel Calibria, a similarly configured coupe that was praised for its V6 refinement and handling.
That kind of refinement was missing from the small displacement high revving turbos of cars Mitsubishi or Subaru. Although top versions of both the MX6 and Probe shared the same 164 hp 2.5 liter V6, Ford’s engineers went through considerable lengths to distinguish their car from Mazda’s both philosophically and aesthetically.
For instance the MX6 had become a comfortable grand tourer that leaned towards luxury, while the Probe had become the bruiser of the two. There were still lower powered looker cars with 2 liter four cylinder engines for the masses. Those somewhat underpowered cars made under 120 hp in base and SE trim, putting on the shopping lists with Cavaliers and Shadow/Dusters. While the V6 was powerful by ’90s standards, it was no match for the Mustang GT, but was more powerful and advanced than the larger V6 that came standard in the LX Mustang.
All of the engineering and marketing efforts came at a price, despite all the parts sharing with Mazda. The GT model was considerably more expensive than the base Mustang and many of its Japanese competitors. The Probe’s price range and spec competed with everything from the Cavalier RS up to the Celica GTS. That would explain the extremely high ratio of four cylinder to V6 GT models. The wide price range was most apparent in the interior. Base model cars often appeared as a sea of grey plastics . GT cars could be better (somewhat) if you got one with two tone door fabrics and varying hues of grey or black. Some even came in tan. While not Ford’s best US interior, it was more ergonomic that what came with the Mustang.
There was no mistaking the MX6 (or Mustang) with the Probe. The two cars could not look more different with Ford continuing the angular look of the previous generation with subtle rounded edges (especially in front). The Mazda was curvaceous and feminine looking in comparison. Suspension tuning was different too with the Probe transmitting more road feel and not isolating the driver from engine noises and road imperfections as much.
The Probe may have cut into some of the Japanese coupe market with its promise of technology, power and style. It was Ford’s way of showing that it offered more than archaic Mustangs in the coupe department. Did Ford’s attempt at selling a modern GT coupe change a whole generation’s mind about the company? Probably not despite the cachet that comes with being sold in Europe as well as throughout North America. It was however one of the best handling front wheel drive coupes of its time in its final years.
All that cross continent street cred never translated into sales for the expensive GT. Sales had started heading downward as early as 1995, years before the final model rolled off the Flat Rock Michigan assembly lines. In an attempt at stemming the tide, Ford offered the SE with a GT appearance package that made the SE look like the GT, but with the four cylinder engine. It may have explained some of why the Probe never had the fanboy base that Toyota, Nissan or Mitsubishi had. The high price of the Probe usually pitted it against Japanese cars with more appeal to buyers on the coasts, making the Probe a poor man’s Mustang in the Midwest. That coupled with typically lower resale values hurt the Probe in the long run. Still its a special car and makes a great second hand bargain if you can come across a clean unmolested example.
Being that the sport coupe market was so finicky, Probe sales would taper off, even as the car got better towards its demise in 1997. The facility that built the Probe also ended MX6 production, with the Probe being the last car to come from the joint production AutoAlliance (AAI) with Mazda (the Mazda3 and Focus were part of a different deal later). In the end the Mustang would win in the race to be Ford’s premier sporty coupe. Ford never quite replicated the Probe formula, although its performance has been eclipsed by hot versions of the Focus (and Fiesta), there is still a hole where a front wheel drive performance coupe called the Probe once filled.