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The future looked bright for the Mercury Villager minivan at its introduction six years ago. The minivan market was red-hot in the United States, and the Villager, co-developed with Nissan, promised something new: Japanese engineering and reliability, combined with American minivan marketing know-how.
The Villager came through on its promises — its swoopy styling was well-received, and it rode and handled better than the Chrysler vans of the time. Villager sales met Ford’s modest goals — about 75,000 units a year — until the arrival of the new, better-looking and better-handling Chrysler minivans of 1996. Now, with a year under its belt, the redesigned Villager has recaptured a little of the edge it once held over the Chrysler minivans.
The Villager looks more like a Nissan than a Mercury. That’s because, just like the previous Villager, it was designed at Nissan’s La Jolla, California, design studio alongside its twin, the Nissan Quest. The body was all-new last year, although it didn’t look like it. As in its first edition, the Villager has flush window glass, smoothly curved fenders with a long front end, and flush door handles.
A driver-side door, at last
The new body allowed designers to address the Villager’s weaknesses. A second (driver-side) sliding door was added — a necessity in the U.S. minivan market now. Length was increased to improve second-seat legroom and cargo room in back. These improvements required no significant changes to the Villager’s platform or wheelbase. That allowed Ford and Nissan to save money at Ford’s Avon Lake, Ohio, plant — the only plant that builds the Villager and Quest.
That platform has a suspension of struts and control arms up front and a rigid axle located by leaf springs in the rear. The Villager’s carlike handling needed little improvement, but Ford and Nissan made changes anyway. Gas pressure in the front struts was reduced by 31 percent to reduce bump harshness, while jounce and rebound control was increased with changes to strut and shock valving. In back, the multileaf springs were reduced to single leaf to reduce spring friction.