During the 1930s Ford Motor Company catered to the luxury market with its Lincolns and to the mass market with its Fords, but it had nothing optimized for the growing middle class segment. It closed the gap slightly with its 12-cylinder Lincoln Zephyr in 1936, but it still needed something in the medium price range. The Mercury Eight was the answer, and it was an instant success, selling 70,385 units during the 1939 model year.
Today's midsize Mountaineer SUV continues the Mercury tradition of borrowing platforms from the Ford line and sprucing, softening and massaging them a bit to appeal to a different audience. Redesigned for 2006, Mountaineer uses the body-on-frame platform of the Ford Explorer, which, in four-wheel-drive form, can be equipped as a real off-road vehicle. But the Mountaineer is no off-roader. Although it borrows the Explorer's four-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and excellent rack and pinion steering, it is offered only in standard rear-wheel-drive or optional all-wheel-drive. The Explorer's four-wheel-drive system with low range is not offered on the Mountaineer. Like Buick, Mercury markets its vehicles to suburban professionals who would rather watch a mud race than participate in one. If you want to play in the mud and rocks, set your sights on the Explorer. If you want a softer riding, great handling sport/luxury vehicle that will pull through through snow and ice and the occasional gooey back road, the Mountaineer is for you.
The all-wheel-drive system is completely automatic. It sends about 35 percent of the power to the front wheels and 65 percent to the rear under normal conditions. If traction changes, as when going up an icy incline, the power flow changes, sending less power to the slipping tire and more power to the others.
There are a number of significant improvements for 2006. A bolder grille treatment, a new liftgate and more attractive taillights are the obvious changes. Interior furnishings also received an upgrade, and additional sound insulation results in an even quieter cabin. A stiffened frame and new shock tuning provide even better ride and handling characteristics than before.
Mercury has tweaked the 4.0-liter V-6 that was in my test vehicle, and it now produces 74 percent lessemissions. It ran smoothly and performed better than you would expect from a 210-horsepower V-6 in a heavy SUV -- probably due to the five-speed automatic transmission that comes standard.
But if enhanced V-6 performance isn't enough, there's a new three-valve 4.6-liter V-8 borrowed from the Ford Mustang that replaces last year's two-valve version. With 292 horsepower (up 52 from last year's) and 300 pound-feet of torque, the engine raises the V-8 Mountaineer's tow limit to 7,300 pounds and delivers 10-percent better fuel economy than before. This engine is mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission.
In the safety department, front-seat side airbags, stability control and Roll Stability Control (engineered by Volvo) are standard on all Mountaineers. Roll Stability Control uses a gyro sensor to calculate the SUV's roll speed and angle. If the system determines a rollover is imminent, Mountaineer's computer takes corrective action. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes and tire-pressure monitors are standard on all models. Standard on the Premier trim level and optional on other Mountaineers is a security group with a backup-sensors and a Safety Canopy System that adds first- and second-row side curtain airbags and a rollover sensor that keeps the airbags inflated longer in a life-threatening situation.
The interior offers room for seven adults with the optional third row seat. The seats are supportive, materials are attractive, and cabin room is commendable. It's feasible to carry two adults in the third row, but choosing the third-row option reduces cargo space. Seven-passenger Mountaineers max out at 82.8 cubic feet of cargo space, while five-passenger versions offer two more cubic feet. A power-operated third-row seat is a new option this year, as is a GPS-based navigation system and DVD entertainment system.
You can choose from three trim levels: Convenience, Luxury and Premier. My Convenience test vehicle was well-equipped with standard features such as leather seating, 17-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, air conditioning, a CD player, cruise, 10-way power driver's seat, power windows, mirrors and locks, and even a Class II hitch receiver. The standard vehicle price is $29,150, but because it was outfitted with running boards, rear a/c, roof rack cross bars and third-row seating, its MSRP is $31,835. Assembled in Louisville, Ky., it is rated for 15-mpg/city and 21-mpg/highway.
Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.