Review: Mercury Mountaineer
SEE ALSO Mercury Buyer's Guide
2002 Mercury Mountaineer Base price: $30,610 Price as tested $36,005 EPA mileage: 14 city/19 highway By Des Toups Pity poor Mercury, bringing the best-ever traditional sport-utility to market just as the market is moving elsewhere. The new-for-2002 Mountaineer is handsome, roomy, well-mannered and powerful, but it may be a trucky anachronism to buyers who've decided the future lies in car-based SUVs. Their misfortune. The new Mountaineer and its more conservative Ford twin, the Explorer, are light years ahead of their rumbly, crude ancestors. An independent rear suspension -- a pothole affects one wheel rather than both -- is certainly the biggest improvement, offering carlike control and making room for a third row of seats. But that's far from all. Pay closer attention to the details rather than genetics, and the Mountaineer/Explorer stands out. Take, for example, a turning circle that's a foot tighter than before -- and five feet tighter than that of the smaller Lexus RX300. Add that to the Mountaineer's rear parking assist (it beeps faster the closer you get to an object), and a machine that was once out of its element in tight urban situations is right at home. Or buyers might consider the Mountaineer's optional 4.6-liter V-8, a sweet-sounding piece that on the face of it only matches the horsepower of the minivan-based Acura MDX's 3.5-liter V-6. But look at the numbers for torque -- the muscle that actually moves the car -- and the Mercury tops the Acura considerably. That extra grunt shows when it comes time to tow: A 4,000-pound boat and trailer would overtax the MDX's 3,500-pound capacity but would fall well within the Mountaineer's 7,000-pound limit (A V-6 Mountaineer outhauls the MDX as well.). Then weigh a class-leading package of safety features, most invisible on a showroom floor. Of course, there are front air bags and four-wheel antilock brakes, and there are optional side-curtain air bags to prevent head injuries during a rollover, all of which are reasonable to expect on this class of sport-ute. But Mercury offers a more tailored approach as well. Adjustable gas and brake pedals allow shorter drivers more distance from the steering wheel. Sensors consider the severity of an accident and the position of the passengers before deploying air bags, and it deploys them with two levels of force, depending again on accident severity. And then there's the BeltMinder, a seat-belt nagger so annoying you'll only have to hear it once. The Mountaineer/Explorer share "Best Pick" ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety with the BMW X5, Acura MDX, Lexus RX300 and Mercedes M-Class. Pretty heady company. Only a cheapness to some interior fittings prevents the Mountaineer from coddling its passengers every bit as well as those high-dollar machines. The grade of plastic used in the center console and the tops of the doors wouldn't be out of place in a Kia, and it's especially noticeable here, where the rest of the interior is relatively plush. The two-toned, perforated leather seats in our tester (part of a $1,750 package) were a delight, easy on the backside on a long trip, and their sharp looks reinforce the urbane image Mercury seeks. The plastics don't, and neither do the hard-to-reach power adjusters. I'd love to see some of that same leather on the steering wheel, whose rim I found a trifle skinny. Fingertip controls for the cruise control, stereo and air-conditioning sprout from the steering wheel's spokes; I'd skip the ventilation controls (how often do you truly mess with full automatic climate control, anyway?) to keep things simpler. The advantage of steering-wheel controls is that you don't have to look to use them, and too many defeats the point. I'm not a fan of the big swaths of aluminum trim appearing on everything from Hyundais to Audis these days, but Mercury's version is at least convincing and complements the detailing elsewhere in the interior. It'd be nice of flashes of body-color sheet metal weren't visible around the doors, though. The new-for-2002 third-row seat is roomy enough for adults, certainly more so than the rearmost pews of the Acura MDX and Dodge Durango. The second seat is divided into three parts, which can fold flat or tumble forward completely to allow riders into the third row. I put passengers in all of them; no one complained. Both back rows of seats fold for a reasonably flat floor, though my camping compatriots judged it too lumpy for a good sleep. Everyone, though, appreciated the deeper rear-hatch glass. Mercury dealers should keep an older Mountaineer on hand to show off the remarkable progress made in driving dynamics for 2002. Steering that was numb is now crisp and linear; ride that was nervous and jiggly is relatively supple. The independent rear suspension keeps the (Goodyear) tires planted on rough roads, and though the Mountaineer is far from a sports car, it can be driven aggressively without that heeling-over feeling prevalent in everything from Nissan Xterras to Mitsubishi Monteros. The all-wheel-drive system is absolutely invisible, with no binding on tight turns. A drive around a suburban dealer's block is unlikely to reveal any of that, unfortunately. Instead, buyers naturally pay attention to what is most easily visible: looks, features, gas mileage, price tag. Let's tackle them all quickly: The Mountaineer isn't as sleek as its upscale competitors, but its boxier shape allows for more cargo room. The slab-sided shape works best in monotone colors, I think; two-tone paint schemes break up the clean shape. Where the Explorer and Mountaineer differ -- the front end, mainly -- I prefer the more conservative Explorer. The busy, aluminum-finish brush guards on the Mountaineer's taillights are no improvement. But your call, of course. Other than trim, the one substantive difference between the Explorer and Mountaineer is the Mercury's all-wheel-drive option (a two-wheel-drive model is available). The chief advantage AWD is that one never has to fiddle with it. The Explorer's Control-Trac system offers a no-think setting -- but it offers the options of more economical two-wheel drive cruising and low-range slogging, too. Chassis tuning supposedly makes the Mountaineer more carlike; I couldn't tell the difference. TheMountaineer offers power seats, a third-row seat and fog lamps standard, but the two can be optioned almost identically. One of the chief reasons buyers are headed toward car-based sport-utes such as the Acura and Lexus is their car-based roots. Neither is remarkably lighter or more nimble, but both bring slightly better EPA gas mileage numbers to the party. In the real world, though, I got a shade over 16 mpg in the Mercury and just under 20 in an MDX a few weeks earlier. Ignoring the fact that you're far more likely to cut a deal on a Mercury than an Acura, the value equation seems slightly out of whack. Our $36,005 tester lacked a sunroof,heated seats or a six-disc CD player.An MDX comes with all, plus waiting-list cachet, for about $2,000 more. To truly distinguish the Mountaineer, I think, Mercury might ladle on the goodies -- the heated seats, the sunroof, the six-disc CD player, all that safety equipment, maybe 17-inch wheels -- and charge one price, the way Acura does. Why nickel-and-dime buyers on a luxury model? Shoppers can dicker all they want, of course, once Mercury has them on the lot. Will the Mountaineer pull them in? So far, it's working. Sales through March were up about 40% over the previous model, a sign that old-fashioned truck virtues still have some appeal -- as long as they come in a serenely competent, vice-free package.