If you're fishing around for metaphors to describe Ford's predicament with Mercury, you don't need to look much further than Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby.
It's probably spoiler-safe now to point out now, three years after it took Best Picture, that after some low-level glory, Baby's heroine Hilary Swank suffers a paralyzing blow and instead of passing mercifully, lingers on in a hellish kind of limbo. That's where Mercury is too, waiting for some humane relief, even though Ford's been saying that it supports the Mercury brand, but doesn't promise any new products.
We've been here before--and there have been more convincing efforts at saving divisions. Remember Oldsmobile? It got an Aurora and multivalve-V-6 Intrigue before GM threw its hands up in surrender. Plymouth? Okay, not such an intense effort, but the Prowler and PT Cruiser should count for something.
It's not for lack of opportunity that Mercury's become so...vestigial. Ford's European Focus and Mondeo would have been great Mercs. How about a domestic-badged Miata and CX-9? That hybrid Milan? How about one truly distinct Mercury that has a decent shot at selling 100,000 units a year--put your hands down if you were going to bring up the cool Cougar?
A long time ago, there was a positioning out there. Mercury--the name means light and quick on its feet, after all--could have been the Ford brand that adopted a range of Mazda products all its own, added some hybrid models, and kept the lineup strictly to vehicles that sent out a greener, more import-friendly image than a traditional Ford or Lincoln would have. And maybe that was the plan, before the financial implosion that came in 2006.
A Mercury lineup flush with a great sportscar, a stylish mid-size sedan, a clever crossover and a truly world-class econobox would probably have some real legs. But it's too late now, probably. Saturn's done about as much to make Mercury inconsequential as Ford has, what with the Aura, Astra, Sky and Outlook. GM got it right.
Meanwhile, Mercury's starved for air. Our sources say that it's not a matter of whether Ford will keep the big rear-drive Grand Marquis alive after 2010 - it's a matter of whether the factory in Canada that builds the Marquis, the Lincoln Town Car and the Ford Crown Vic will even stay open through 2009. Lincoln's getting a new range-topper, but it's going to be spun from the MKS platform--which means no rear-drive, which means the financial case for the Grand Marquis goes away.
As for a replacement of the front- or four-wheel-drive persuasion, forget it. A representative from another manufacturer noted correctly that nobody made much of Alan Mulally's recent remarks that there would be a new Taurus. "He didn't say there would be a new Sable," the clever observer correctly noted.
Milan? How about just Fusion and MKZ? Mariner? Anyone? Bueller?
Sometimes, the most humane thing to do is to shut off the oxygen.
Tell us what you think Mercury needs in its lineup to survive--or if Ford should pull the plug sooner rather than later.