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Ford Revamps Mercury On The Cheap

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Related Articles: 2004 Mercury Monterey by Marc K. Stengel (11/3/2003)
Mercury invests new Monterey minivan with all the safety and comforts of home.

Ford’s new plan for Mercury means doing less with more. Developing dedicated platforms for the brand won’t be happening — but instead of consigning Mercury to the scrap heap atop Olds and Plymouth, Ford is gambling that cosmetics and options will give enough buyers a reason to shop the Mercury brand instead of the competition.

The new Monterey minivan is the first example of the not-so-new philosophy. The Monterey minivan is basically a version of the Freestar restyled for Mercury. In keeping with the design cues originally introduced with the Mountaineer, the Monterey gets matte-metallic trim, a vertical-bar grille with the “waterfall” logo, special trim and color options, and a few exclusive features not available on the Ford. In keeping with the upscale theme, only luxuriously equipped versions with the 4.2-liter engine are offered, at prices that fit alongside those of the best-equipped Freestars.

Faced with the ongoing problem of how to keep the existing, profitable, loyal Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car customer base while attracting new customers (as Lincoln and Mercury are entrenched in the same showrooms), the division is hoping that some subtle but important changes will differentiate each Mercury model from Ford.

Monterey leads the way

That includes Monterey. In Mercury’s version of the minivan, two features will be offered that aren’t offered in the Freestar lineup. First, the Monterey offers parking sensors in both the front and back, versus just the back in the Freestar. Also, the Monterey will offer heated and cooled seats — the cooling feature being the first in the minivan segment. The fan-driven seat cooling system forces cool air up through the perforated leather upholstery in either a low or high mode. On a warm, sunny day, it worked perfectly, providing just the right amount of drafty cool. Seat supplier Magna Intier skillfully snaked the system into the seat along with the existing weight-sensing pad for the airbag’s occupant detection system.

With a product strategy that’s bounced back and forth through the years between offering completely different products than Ford, to offering same-as, rebadged Ford products, Mercury’s strategy is now somewhere in between. The division plans to offer mostly rebadged versions of Ford vehicles, but with more of a styling distinction than existed in the past. Mercury will also offer some design cues unique to the brand, like the vertical grille strakes and sporty looking ‘spoked’ wheels.

Jon Fitzpatrick, Lincoln Mercury General Marketing Manager, admitted that to keep the existing L-M customer base, the changes won’t be radical and won’t involve bringing a “driver’s car” or “import-fighter” edge to Mercury. Lessons have been learned from the past, Fitzpatrick commented, such as with the division’s Merkur efforts in the ’80s. In the meantime, look for those “subtle but important” changes to distinguish Mercurys, along with some key Mercury-exclusive luxury offerings and tech features.

Fitzpatrick said that Mercury buyers are generally from a higher income bracket, with more discerning tastes and a higher education level. When we asked if they’ve considered offering the hybrid powertrain on a Mercury model, a natural for the “educated crowd,” he remarked that it had been discussed.

Also look for Mercurys to offer larger, showier wheels than their Ford counterparts. “Our dealers are telling us that big, styled wheels are important,” said Fitzpatrick, who added that the oversized spoked wheels may become another brand differentiator.

With calendar-year Mercury sales up, and dealer profits up as well, the division should see better health soon, with the Monterey the first of four new Mercury models to be introduced in the next two calendar years. The Montego sedan, sharing its platform with the Ford Five Hundred and Freestyle, will be introduced in the second half of next year, while the Mariner, a Mercury-styled version of the Ford Escape, will be out before then. A new coupe model is also on the way, filling the gap left by the discontinued Cougar.

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