If you were kidnapped by some deranged psycho who tied you up, threw you in the back of his Mercury Tracer, drove you around for weeks doing terrible things to you while chanting “My car is a Mercury Tracer!” I bet that if you were asked, after the ordeal, what car your kidnapper drove, you might say “Um, maybe it was a Civic? Maybe a Chevy Cavalier? I’m not sure.” That’s how memorable the Mercury Tracer is.
The Mercury Tracer is a meh car of the highest order: it did the job just fine, but if there’s anyone out there who has any sort of passionate feelings about this car, I’ll be flabbergasted. Trying to imagine a human being actually, really desiring a Mercury Tracer is like trying to imagine an entirely new color: it’s just not something the human brain can do.
Incredibly, the Tracer had a pretty long life, being built from 1987 to 1999, over three distinct generations of cars, which somehow managed to get more and more meh with each iteration. That’s what makes the Tracer such a fantastic example of a meh car — they weren’t content to just sit on their anonymous, forgettable laurels, and pushed that meh envelope with each new version.
The first generation is the least meh because it comes from a not-so-meh car, the Ford Laser. The Laser was actually based on the Mazda 323, and there was even a fun hot-hatch variant, the TX3. These cars were decent little hatchbacks, and had some character and appeal.
Ford did their best to de-charmify the car when they rebadged it as the Mercury Tracer for the American market, and they did a remarkably good job. I’m told their techniques are still used in other industries, such as forming the basis for the sophisticated de-flavorization process chicken goes through before being added to a pre-packaged salad.
The first-gen Tracer had a late-80s look so bland and generic, you could have slapped almost any mass-market carmaker’s badge on the front and nobody would have noticed. Look, I’ll show you:
Unless you really gave a shit about cars, any of those badges could have seemed just fine. With a transverse 1.6-liter four making 82 horsepower driving the front wheels, its specs could have been from the bottom end of almost any mainstream carmaker as well.
The second generation Tracer was still on a Mazda platform, but this time the Tracer was just a badge-engineered Ford Escort. At least the first generation had some kind of very, very tepid interest because it was unique to Mercury; in the U.S., there was no Ford-badged version of the Tracer. The vigorous meh-enhancement cycle managed to remove that, quite effectively.
Still think the car may be not so meh? Look at this commercial: the big hook is that the owner is somewhat surprised she now needs glasses:
Sure, the Tracer was really, really boring, but Ford’s crack team of anonymization engineers weren’t satisfied. The second-gen Tracer had a grille insert panel that was actually mildly visually interesting. I mean, not very interesting, but at least a little notable among early ‘90s cars, with its gradient-like vertical line pattern:
It’s not much, but it was something that you might remember, so for the third gen, Ford pulled out all the stops and made a car so fantastically meh I can’t even be bothered to finish this sente
Just look at that thing. It’s like looking at the composite image of a mid-’90s car on some insurance ad in Long Term Records Storage magazine. If there ever was a car that had pretty much no good reason to exist, the third-gen Mercury Tracer had to be it. It didn’t really offer any advantages over the Escort it was based on, it was forgettable looking, it had 110 narcoleptic horses, no notable features, no interesting quirks, nothing it did especially well or especially terrible.
Mercury somehow sold over 20,000 3rd-gen Tracers, probably to people who said things like, “sure, that’s fine” when they saw the car, and then referred to it as a Ford Contour for weeks without realizing it.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a Tracer out on the roads, because nobody can. Maybe they’re there, mid-sized silvery blobs taking up excess parking spaces somewhere. Who the hell would know?
In this one meh context, though, the Mercury Tracer is an incredible standout. A car so completely meh, the vast majority of humans couldn’t give a shit about it even if they were strapped into an atomic powered shit-extraction-and-donation machine.
What car was I writing about, again?