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Although it's a carryover design in a market segment full of new faces, the Ford Probe has been, and will likely continue to be, the leader of the small sport- coupe pack. Given the competition - Acura Integra, Honda Prelude, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Toyota Celica, Nissan 240SX and Mazda MX-6 - being top dog is an indication that Ford did something right when it introduced the Probe for the 1989 model year.
In fact, Ford did a number of things right. One was to produce this sleek front-drive coupe in partnership with Mazda, a ready source for some pretty sophisticated and already-available hardware. Giving company designers the freedom to produce a stunning body shape was another smart move, as was keeping the Probe's price low and affordable.
The Ford/Mazda collaboration resulted in one major plus for both the Probe and the MX-6: Unlike other players in this category, both offer V6 powerhouses, a decided advantage in terms of smoothness. Among its 4-cylinder competitors, only the Integra and Prelude come close to matching the Probe's silky delivery.
But a spending few miles behind the Probe's steering wheel will tell you that Ford's smartest move was to pay close attention to the details that separate passenger carriers from sportsters. Simply put, the Probe is lots of fun to drive.
Models include base and GT versions. Our test GT, stocked with anti-lock brakes (ABS), power everything, leather seats and an AM/FM/CD sound system, came to $21,265.
The Probe may share a lot of components - powertrains, understructure and major suspension pieces among them - with the MX-6, but the overall packages couldn't be more different. The Probe has a slim, sleek, aggressive exterior that looks fresh and exciting even after a few years on the road. Only the now-pass pop-up headlights betray the probe's age; otherwise, the rounded nose, smooth sculptured sides and unique glass-rich roofline combine to make this coupe a styling standout.
The upper-level GT differs from its base sibling in several respects. First and foremost is the engine: The base model features a 118-hp 2.0-liter DOHC 4-cylinder from Mazda; the GT has a 2.5-liter DOHC V6, also built by Mazda, that generates 164 hp. Also, while each model has its own nose cap and taillight treatment, the GT sports larger 16-in. alloy wheels. A rear wing is standard on the GT version as well, though this can be deleted (knocking $235 off the price) when ordering.
There are practical aspects to the probe's looks, which is consistent with the Ford design philosophy. Low aerodynamic drag means reduced wind noise, and the large rear hatch permits maximum access to the large luggage bin, albeit with a high lift-over to surmount. Other details are perhaps less successful: The outside mirrors are smaller than we'd like, and the semi-concealed door handles, although good-looking, aren't the easiest to operate. These, however, are minor problems made insignificant by the probe's handsome appearance.
The driver and the front-seat passenger are well served by the probe's interior accommodations. Wide doors make access easy, and a pair of nicely contoured bucket seats await. As you'd expect in a sport coupe, the driver gets the lion's share of the attention, having a nice thick-rim wheel (complete with airbag and cruise- control buttons), well-sited pedals and shift lever, and a sweeping control pod to play with and admire.
Full instrumentation - tachometer, speedometer, odometer, voltmeter, and fuel level, water temperature and oil pressure gauges - is provided, as are simple knobs for the climate-control system. The radio, as is often the case with Ford, has an array of small push buttons that are hard to get used to and difficult to find when the car is moving.
Like the exterior, the probe's cabin is dominated by smooth, sweeping elliptical forms, from the dashboard to the levers, switches and hand grips on the doors. The only styling miscue is the large bulge on the right side of the dash, but that can be forgiven as it makes room for a passenger's airbag without displacing the glove box.
Forget the rear seats. Instead, fold down the back and get an additional 9.0 cu. ft. of stowage space. Or just use the rear cushions to hold smaller parcels.
Leather seats - with unusual longitudinal pleating - are an option. And a few features are offered to make the Probe more comfortable. Base-model seats can be upgraded, and air conditioning (optional on both base and GT) and a couple of radio enhancements are available. GT buyers can also opt for a sunroof.
If a combination of good looks and practical transportation fits your driving needs, the base Probe is a fine choice. Its 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine does an adequate job of pulling the 2700 lb. car along, delivering good fuel economy and a reasonably smooth, quiet ride. It can be teamed effectively with either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.
Moreover, the base Probe blends a smooth city ride with good highway manners. From inside, you won't be bothered by much wind or tire noise, and the engine settles down to a muted hum at cruising speeds.
We have to say, though, that our Probe GT test car was much more fun to drive. The 2.5-liter V6 offers sparkling performance with minimal loss in fuel economy (the EPA figures for the V6 are 21 mpg city/26 mpg hwy., but the real-world difference between Probe engines is less) and a big gain in flexibility. The manual transmission is our first choice for the GT; the automatic, though perfectly acceptable, dampens the car's sporty nature.
A couple of minor points detract from the GT's fun rating. First, you have to accept the engine's preference for high-rpm operation. At low revs, it feels sluggish (one good reason to avoid the automatic transmission) and doesn't come alive much below 3000 rpm. And the clutch in our test car was annoyingly numb, making slip-free shifts difficult.
These, however, are minor issues. What earns the GT a glowing report is its behavior on the road. The base model is nimble enough, but the GT is agile, darting around in a way that will bring a smile to any driver's face. Steering is light and positive, body roll is kept well in check and most front-wheel drive traits - such as a torque-induced tug at the steering wheel during hard acceleration, and a tendency for the front wheels to plow in high-speed turns - have been muted.
The downside is a stiff ride. The GT can't be called harsh, but it's not as smooth over rough surfaces as the base model.
In normal-to-heavy use, the GT's 4-wheel disc brakes are excellent. ABS is standard on the GT, optional on the base model. Extremely hard usage - at near-racetrack speeds - will induce some fade, but by then you may already be seeing red lights flashing in your rear-view mirror.
By and large, the Ford Probe is a most sensible sport coupe. It provides the style expected of the genre, is well built and doesn't extract the expected penalties in comfort (at least for front-seat riders).
We'd advise careful consideration before choosing the base model, however. The initial savings (about $2500 over the GT's base price) and fuel economy pale when you factor in the bigger Engine's delightful responsiveness, the cost of adding the optional ABS that is standard on the GT and the lack of amenities such as a sunroof and leather seats.
But we can see no reason not to buy the Probe GT. And any number of good reasons why you should.