The Ford Probe of the late 80s was a litany of pros and cons.
On the plus side, chalk the looks: svelte, sporty, aggressive. Put a checkmark next to the intent box: the probe was initially seen as an ambitious Mustang replacement. Then there was Mazda’s involvement in the genesis of the Probe. It would be built under a joint venture known as AutoAlliance International near Detroit, and offered with a Mazda 2.0-liter four-cylinder, a similar turbocharger-boosted powertrain, and later a 2.5-liter V6 generating 164 horsepower. The platform, drivetrain and suspension were all reliably Mazda, based on the company’s popular 626 sedan.
Now let’s move on to the other side of the ledger. There were these reactions, more or less, to the “replace the Mustang” approach when Ford fanboys learned of the upcoming changes:
“Are you kidding?”
“Are you kidding me.”
“You must be crazy!”
Why is the Ford Probe a future classic?
In the mid-1980s, Ford’s plan to introduce a redesigned Mustang – a classic in its portfolio for decades already – was a risky proposition, even before the redesign came to life. Due to exorbitant gas prices around 1980 – when the Probe-to-Mustang concept was conceived – Ford predicted that gas guzzlers like the Mustang would soon disappear. Additionally, Ford’s bean counters felt that a probe would be cheaper to produce.
When official details were leaked and released in 1987, the $13,000 probe was cautiously applauded by the mass market, but thousands of Mustangers sent complaints to Ford. Blocking a four-cylinder in a “Mustang” would be heresy. Front-wheel Drive? Not. And… by naming it a probe? Meh.
Neil Ressler, then head of small car engineering at Ford, then pondered the different notions of what the Mustang should be: “There were a lot of people who thought (the Probe) was a great idea — a car modern. There were also many of us who were appalled by this. It was as if the champagne-drinking crowd replaced the beer-drinking crowd. The idea that we would replace the Mustang with a Japanese car – a different car from a different culture aimed at a different audience… it’s not going to work.”
By 1997, less than 20,000 units had been delivered in Probe’s final years. Its official demise, prompted by sales of cars aimed at enthusiasts like the Honda Prelude and Toyota Celica, was announced in March of the same year. By the end, Ford had produced nearly 310,000 probes in ten years on its assembly line in Flat Rock, Michigan.
In the final analysis, the probe was a story of “different shots”. If he hadn’t been born as an anti-Mustang – it’s hard to dethrone a champion – his ultimate fate might have been kinder.
What is the ideal example of the Ford Probe?
The base mix-‘n-match model that went on sale in the United States in 1989 (and sold alongside the Mustang) had, as mentioned, a 100-horsepower four. The slightly higher-end GT version housed a 145 horsepower turbo. It received critical acclaim for its agility and maneuverability, clean look, and modest utility (the trunk was a wide liftback). A 3.0-liter V6 was an available option, and engines could be mated to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.
Second-generation models of the Ford Probe were released for 1993. As before, the Probe was to share its understructure with Mazda’s MX-6 and 626, and the GT model was named “Car of the Year” by Engine trend. Her redesign was led by Mimi Vanderholen, who was responsible for the design of the Ford Taurus, and she tweaked the interior to make it more female-friendly, but the basic specifications remained unchanged. The best engine option on this second-generation model was a Mazda-designed 24-valve 2.5-liter DOHC V6 that produced 164 horsepower.
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Are there good alternatives to the Ford Probe?
Although Ford pumped out more than 300,000 Probes over a decade, in the latter years of the race the number dwindled, so desirable late models are few and far between. The mechanically similar Mazda MX-6 isn’t any easier to find either.
We found one available in Kansas, a 1994 five-speed GT with 81,000 miles, offered by a dealer for $11,000.
There’s a generous selection of alternatives, including the 1990 Mazda Miata, which proved that a British, Japanese-built sports car knockoff could be reliable.
Also from Japan, the Nissan 300ZX could be had with a 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 engine developing 300 horsepower and 283 lb-ft. of torque. And there’s the third-generation Honda Prelude sporty compact, a fascinating (for its time) mix of technology, like four-wheel steering. Also check out the top-of-the-line Prelude 2.0 Si, which incorporated a 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder producing 135 horsepower and 127 lb-ft of torque. Some preludes had tricky transmissions, so watch out for weird noises and pops.