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Mercury Capri: Just Call It the Wizard of Aus

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cliquish, quickish world of low-cost, high-sport convertible motoring suddenly is a community of two.

Mazda, of course, has owned this market since its marvelous Miata buzzed our length and breadth and captivated twentysomething America quicker than Breathless Mahoney.

Now looms another potential passion, the Mercury Capri, an Australian-built drop top with the intriguing distinction of being the first vehicle from Down Under to be sold up here.

Due to belated fitting of air bags, some mid-development modifications in pursuit of California’s ever-fluctuating emissions requirements, and a temporary diversion of Capri engineers to a higher priority project with Ford of Australia, the car has been a long time getting here.

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But it arrives in showrooms next week) and comes loaded with unisex appeal. Its performance falls quite nicely between spirited and discreet. And with mainstream styling and a base price of $12,588, the Capri may well have been worth the wait.

Capri-versus-Miata comparisons will be inevitable.

They also are about as valid as bananas and walnuts.

Miata--a banzai two-seater that re-creates the grand old days of populist sports cars--went from a California designer’s doodle to international celebrity (still with an 18-month waiting list in some countries) in about four years.

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Capri--a larger and heavier vehicle of more suburban purpose--began life as the Barchetta, a Ghia-designed concept car exhibited by Ford of Europe at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Miata is saucy motoring that will leave bug splotches on your contact lenses. Its tuned exhaust is better listening than KKGO. Miata’s entire appeal is its return to classical form and elementary functions.

The Capri is quieter and softer, almost a touring car. It is much more a riding roadster than a driving car. It is pleasant and satisfying without ever really delivering exhilaration.

Yet as the Triumph TR-6, the AC-Ace and BMW 507s demonstrated in their primes, nowhere is it ordained (except by purists in string-backed driving gloves) that the high of alfresco motoring may only be delivered through noise, dash, zinging emotions and wind-tingled ears.

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The Capri certainly delivers satisfaction. It just doesn’t make a huge fuss about it. In short, noted a Mercury spokesman, the Capri is “not a toy . . . and it does have room for extra people and golf clubs.

“This (the Capri) can be your only car. You’d be hard pressed to own a Miata as your first and only car.”

Unfortunately, the delivery dalliance of Capri shows in the lines of the car.

Because it was first sketched in 1983, the shape remains the gentle wedge that was the state of the styling arts in the early ‘80s.

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Remember the slope-fronted TR-7 and TR-8? Recall the Nissan Pulsar NX coupe with the blunt butt that became such a pretty rag top when cut into a convertible by Southern California’s after-market converters?

So despite the Capri’s rear deck spoiler, its integral aerodynamic skirting, distinctive belt line and other cues of the ‘90s, enough whispers from the ‘80s remain.

The Capri is not a gorgeous car. It certainly is not an unattractive vehicle. It is quite simply and rather pleasantly there.

The car comes in only two versions.

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$12,588 buys the basic 2+2 (with jump seats better utilized by groceries and tennis racquets before people) offering a multivalve, inline-four engine good for 100 horsepower.

$15,522 is the price on the turbocharged Capri XR2 with 30% more horsepower and a full inventory of options including air conditioning, cruise control, fog lamps, power windows and snazzier aluminum wheels.

Both are convertibles, and there’s an optional hardtop available for $1,200. All come with four-wheel disc brakes, power windows and locks, and driver-side air bag. A four-speed automatic is available for the entry-level Capri, but not the XR2.

Dropping and raising the soft top is easier than opening a checkbook. It’s a three-catch operation--albeit one that can only be performed from outside the car--with the canvas folding back and down into a storage area behind the seats.

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A solid plastic cover clicks down over the stored top and the entire maneuver takes all of 37 seconds.

The rear window, however, is flexible plastic.

So only a year or three in California’s smaze-focused sunshine will determine whether it browns out and atrophies before the top pops its stitching.

The interior of the car is flawless--with the exception of elongated doors. They’re actually six inches longer than the barn doors found on an LTD Crown Victoria station wagon. That makes for an uncomfortable, over-the-shoulder, nerve-pinching reach to find the locking button and seat belt harness.

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But the leather-covered, four-spoke steering wheel is of Grand Prix heft and cushioning. And Mercury has managed to fit an air bag alongside the electronics for the horn and cruise control without having the center of the steering wheel bulge bigger than a deep-dish apple pie.

Size and positioning of the instruments allows instinctive scanning. The lines of the dash are crisp and coordinated with highly legible lettering and symbology. But we would have liked some small container in the console with a lid for gas receipts, parking stubs and other mini-documents that have a habit of fluttering free whenever a convertible top is down.

The Capri’s bucket seats are secure without being Spartan, and the fabric upholstery (leather is not available) has a high, tweedy quality. Power-window and mirror controls, however, have a slight touch of Aussie nonsense to them: They are mounted in door and center-console arm rests where they can quite easily be operated by the driver’s elbows.

Trunk space is 9 cubic feet, which averages out to adequate. Wind hisses with the convertible top up are quite noticeable, and noisy enough to suspect a missed catch or a window left ajar.

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Mercury introduced its Capri to the motoring media at Chandler, Ariz., which is 20 miles south of Phoenix as the heat shimmers. It also is the new location of Bob Bondurant’s School of High Performance Driving that recently traded cool pines for hot saguaros in moving from Napa and the Sears Point Raceway.

Although the Capri wasn’t really geared for sterling Bob’s 1.6-mile serpentine, there was sufficient room and an obvious freedom from gendarmes to play very hard indeed with this little wizard of Aus.

And the fact that it survived two days of being thrashed sideways, spun, locked up and over-revved in desert temperatures until clutches and brakes smelled like smoldering sneakers is tribute enough to Capri’s over-engineering.

In initial acceleration, the car is well up to what can be expected from multivalve, turbocharged engines in this horsepower and price range. That translates to 0-60 acceleration times a full second quicker than Miata and only a second slower than turbocharged sport coupes from Mitsubishi and Ford.

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A top speed of 125 is quite respectable--but it is in its mid-range performance, playing around with fourth and fifth gears at speeds above 70, where the Capri simply surges and shines.

The car is wonderfully well-mannered and forgiving even when maneuvering spiritedly at these speeds. Credit that to a beefed-up body that reduces convertible flex to a minimum and a suspension setup that keeps the car predictable and flat without making every road ripple, to the discomfort of denture wearers.

Steering is loyal except when powering hard from slow, tight turns. The Capri is a front-wheel driver, and that means torque steer--or front-wheel slap and jiggles under certain configurations accompanied by serious power.

It is not an enormous flaw. It is not dangerous.

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But it is a handling surprise that engineers in their white coats and frowns, whether building Capris or Corrados, should have tamed by now.

Capri was tailored to a definite profile, one of fun, youth, economy, performance and a sense of the pure sports car but with somewhat broader purpose.

Australia has delivered precisely that. Plus a thing of charming impudence and uncommon adaptability.

Call it Mercury Dundee.

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1991 MERCURY CAPRI XR2

COST :

* Base $12,588.

* As tested $15,977 (XR2 with air conditioning, aluminum wheels and power locks, cruise control, fog lamps and turbocharged engine.).

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ENGINE :

* Inline 4 cylinders, 16 valves and turbocharged developing 132 horsepower.

TYPE :

* Front-wheel drive, 2+2 convertible sports car.

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PERFORMANCE :

* 0-60 (as tested) 8 seconds.

* Top speed (as track tested) 126 m.p.h.

* Fuel economy, EPA city-highway, 23 to 28 m.p.g.

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CURB WEIGHT :

* 2,520 pounds.

THE GOOD :

* Racy handling, much pep for the price.

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* A kinder, gentler sports car with high fun factor.

* Driver-side air bag as standard equipment.

* Raising and lowering of top is quick, painless and requires no bad language skills.

THE BAD :

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* Stale styling.

* Slipstream noises with top up.

* Inconvenient positioning of door buttons, power mirror and window controls.

THE UGLY :

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* A perennial peeve: pop-up headlights.


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