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New Car Preview: 2005 Mercury Montego

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By Carey Russ (c) 2004

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Mercedes-Benz

At the recent press launch of the 2005 Mercury Montego in San Jose, California, Darryl Hazel, President of Lincoln-Mercury, put the most positive spin on the situation. ``We have'' he stated ''a unique opportunity to re-establish the Mercury brand.'' Indeed. As Mr. Hazel went on to point out, Mercury has been ``off most customer radar screens'' for a while. Blame changing customer demographics, an issue that has also affected Mercury's competitors, and the lack of a cohesive Mercury image in recent years. The introduction of the newest Mercury car should go far to address those issues, and it points to a bright future for the brand.

The Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Company was founded in the late 1930s to sell cars more upscale than Fords, but less expensive than Lincolns. And originally it did well in that role. But in recent years, Mercury has had an identity crisis. Cars that had appealed to one generation lost appeal as that generation passed its peak buying years. Younger customers had different tastes, and fewer found a Mercury product that appealed to them. To be fair, this happened to nearly all luxury or semi-luxury brands, be they American or European, and Mercury did better than some competitors - seen any new Oldsmobiles lately? But the Mercury lineup became a catch-all of everything that was neither Ford nor Lincoln, with cars as divergent as the conservative and traditionalist Grand Marquis and the Cougar sports coupe sharing showroom space. Differences outweighed similarities there - Cougar buyers probably weren't going to eventually purchase a Grand Marquis.

The Mountaineer, Mercury's first SUV, was a step in the right direction. It brought new blood to Mercury showrooms when it debuted in 1996. With the second-generation Mountaineer in 2002, Mercury got a new and distinctive look. That angular and well-defined style, with brushed-satin trim and a bold waterfall grille, was continued with the introduction of the first full-size premium Mercury minivan, the Monterey, last year. And it reaches maturity with the new Montego. For the first time in recent memory, there is a cohesive look for Mercury's vehicles. A new Mercury is distinctively and recognizably a Mercury.

After a concentration on trucks for the past few years, 2005 is ``The Year of the Car'' at Ford Motor Company. The Montego is Mercury's contribution. It is a new take on what, at the height of the SUV boom, seemed to be an extinct automotive genre, the large sedan. It is a distinctive statement of the design language first introduced on the 2002 Mountaineer, and definitely stands out from the crowd. Mercury believes it will sell on looks and size, particularly interior size. At 200.7 inches in length, it's barely longer than a Sable; but the Montego's 112.9-inch wheelbase is is over four inches longer than the Sable's, for much-improved interior space. Conversely, the Montego is a foot shorter than a Grand Marquis, but it's wheelbase is only two inches less. It has only two cubic feet less interior volume than its much larger cousin. Size matters - particularly inside. And with a large-car interior in a mid-size package, plus distinctive styling and very good chassis dynamics, Mercury believes it can attract people who previously would never have set foot in a Mercury showroom.

If its looks seem somewhat European, there is a certain amount of Scandinavian influence in the chassis. Like its Ford equivalent, the Five Hundred, the Mercury Montego is built on a platform that is new to Ford - but was developed from that of the Volvo S80. Like its Swedish ancestor, the Montego is available in front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) configuration. Power - 203 hp at 5,750 rpm and 207 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm - is from the tried-and-true 3.0-liter dual overhead cam ``Duratec'' V6 that has powered many a Sable over the past few years, but it gets to the ground somewhat differently than in the Sable. Front-wheel drive Montegos have a six-speed automatic transmission, for both improved performance and fuel economy. All-wheel drive models go that one better, with a stepless continuously-variable transmission (CVT). Suspension is fully independent, with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link setup in the rear. Brakes are disc all around, with standard ABS and electronic brake-force distribution.

Safety is important, and the Montego builds on Ford's ``Personal Safety System''(tm) with new features and Volvo influence. It is expected to meet future standards for occupant and rear-impact protection. The chassis structure was designed with safety in mind, including side-impact technology derived from Volvo's ``Side Impact Protection System'' (SIPS). Active safety system sensors throughout the car work together to tailor airbag response. Dual-deployment speed front airbags are standard, with side and side-curtain airbags available.

Two trim levels, ``Luxury'' and ``Premier'', are offered. Both feature a bright, contemporary interior design with plenty of space and all of the comfort features expected in a near-luxury car. A huge trunk, split-folding rear seat, and folding front passenger seat should address any cargo needs. Mercury spokespeople claimed that an eight-foot ladder could fit inside, although don't expect to be a passenger in that situation. The 21 cubic-foot trunk rivals the Grand Marquis's 20.6 cu. ft. Need space and tired of your SUV's truck ride and handling? Maybe it's time to check out a Mercury Montego.

After the product presentation, I was invited to drive a Montego from the launch location in downtown San Jose over Highway 17 to Santa Cruz, and then back by way of California Highway 9. These are challenging roads. Highway 17, although a four-lane limited-access road, is not your average Interstate. It has steep grades and tight, blind curves, and heavy truck traffic may be moving twenty or thirty mph less than cars. It puts a premium on acceleration, braking, and steering and handling response. The AWD Montego Premium that I drove had no problems with the grades or the curves. And the CVT was, like all such transmissions, impressively smooth. Nothing shifts more smoothly than a transmission that doesn't shift at all.

Coming back over 9 was a revelation. This road is not what would normally be thought of as Mercury country. It's a classic narrow convoluted mountain road. In a traffic-less section of sequential S-bends I had the opportunity to check out the Montego's handling abilities on a road more suited for a European sports sedan. With a suspension tuning that balances ride comfort and handling in a very European manner, and all-wheel drive traction and CVT responsiveness, the Montego did very well. As its lines make it look smaller than it is, its steering and chassis response makes it feel smaller and lighter than it is. This is the car that Mercury needed for success, and they got it right.

Pricing has been set very competitively, starting at $24,995 for the Luxury, or $26,695 with AWD, and $27,195 for an FWD Premier and $28, 895 for an AWD Premier model. A Premier AWD model with all the trimmings should top out at under $ 32,000.