"Imagine yourself in a Mercury," reads the ad copy. Well, how about getting people to imagine that Mercurys aren't just tarted-up Fords with different trim and higher prices? That's the challenging task facing the folks in charge of marketing the refitted, revised and updated 2002 Mercury Mountaineer SUV.
As in previous years, the "entry luxury" 2002 Mountaineer shares much of its fundamentals (basic structure, common drivetrains, etc.) with the Ford Explorer. It also comes equipped with a greater abundance of included equipment than standard-issue Explorers, such a six-way power driver's seat and automatic transmission. Nothing new there.
But for 2002, the Merc at least looks quite different for the first time. This is mostly due to the toothy front-end treatment — extra large upper grille with vertical slats set off by large headlamp assemblies that end in a Kabuki-like taper. It's the most Japanese-looking Ford, er Mercury, ever to hit the showrooms. And it's wholly distinct from the still-traditional appearance of the '02 Explorer.
Other styling cues that separate the Mercury from the more run-of-the-mill Ford include the use of faux (that's Euro-speak for "fake") brushed aluminum for the taillight protectors and other exterior trim pieces, such as that big grille. The idea is neat and it looks great from ten yards away. But upon inspection the material is clearly plastic, not metal. The problem with this is that while it gives the truck a neato industrial/techie look, the material is relatively fragile and probably quite easily damaged. For taillight "protectors" (and the grille) that's kinda silly. A shopping cart bumping into the tail-light "protectors" could crack them without much trouble. A minor impact would surely break the probably very expensive grille. They're purely cosmetic. Real aluminum or some other metal alloy would have been a much better choice.
2002 Mercury MountaineerEnlarge Photo
2002 Mercury Mountaineer
News beneath the floor
But cosmetics aside, the real news is under the floorpans, for both the '02 Mountaineer and its Ford Explorer sibling. In part to nip the criticism that its SUVs are less stable than they ought to be — and in part to allow for third-row seating inside — the engineers substantially revised the rear suspension system of both trucks. For the first time, a fully independent rear suspension (IRS) is standard, replacing the age-old solid axle used on every Ford truck since the dawn of time. The rear wheels can now move up and down independently of one another, responding to road surface irregularities with greater aplomb and giving the driver a better sense of control. Ride quality is also much improved on rough roads.
To further improve stability, the track (the distance between each pair of wheels) has been widened by 2.5 inches. This also increases interior room. Both changes enabled the engineers to lower the rear floor by seven inches, making possible the fold-down third row seating that expands the Mountaineer's (and Explorer's) passenger capacity to seven from five.
As a practical matter, this makes the new Mountaineer much more viable as an alternative to a full-size lunker like the Ford Expedition. People who need that extra bit of room can now get it in a more reasonably-sized SUV that doesn't cost $60 per week to fuel and which can fit in a single parking space at the shopping mall.
The other big upgrade to the '02 Mountaineer is underhood. The standard 4.0-liter V-6 delivers near V-8 power at 210 hp, but if that's not enough, you can step up to the revised 4.6 liter SOHC V-8, which now churns out a very satisfying 240 hp. Both engines are teamed with Ford's excellent five-speed automatic. This transmission has tighter gear spacing, so shifts are quick and very crisp, with the engine seemingly always on the sweet side of the power curve. Most other trucks and SUVs still have four-speed automatics with wider spacing between gears and a more sluggish feel to them.
2002 Mercury Mountaineer
The V-8 can be ordered as a stand-alone upgrade to the base 2WD or AWD Mountaineer for an additional $695. It is worth the extra bucks, though your fuel economy will plummet.
Ford, er Mercury, will also be offering an interesting safety feature later in the model year — Rollover Protection Sensors — that will serve as yet another fail-safe measure to (hopefully) keep people out of trouble in their SUVs. That and the forthcoming availability of an active handling/stability control system should address any lingering concerns about the handling characteristics of Ford SUVs. The automaker is doing everything it can to make what are fundamentally truck-type utility vehicles behave more like passenger cars. The fact is that any SUV will be more likely to tip over if subjected to abusive, high-speed maneuvering, but Ford has done a whole bunch of fixin' to protect people from themselves.
The newfound power of the pumped-up 4.6 V-8, third-row seating and the improvements to the suspension system make the Mountaineer a pretty nice SUV.
It should fare well against similar SUVs from other automakers. But it'll be more interesting to see how it does against its more direct competitor, the Ford Explorer. The base model Explorer XLS 2WD is almost the same truck as the standard 2WD Mountaineer and has many of the important items such as A/C standard for an MSRP of $24,020, or nearly $5000 less than the Merc's base price of $28,630. When you compare the loaded Explorer Eddie Bauer ($34,055) 4x4 or Explorer Limited ($32,090) the distinction becomes hazier. If Mercury is the "entry luxury" brand, why does the Ford cost more?
Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice. What it really comes down to is which "look" you prefer. The ace card of the Mercury is that it's distinctive; an Explorer for someone who doesn't want an SUV that looks like an Explorer.
2002 Mercury Mountaineer
Base price range: $28,630-$30,610
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6, 210 hp; 4.6-liter V-8, 240 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic; rear-wheel or full-time four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 113.7 in
Length: 190.7 in
Width: 72.1 in
Height: 71.1 in
Curb Weight: 4170 lb
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, ABS, optional side airbags
Major standard features: V-6 engine, five-speed automatic, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with CD, power windows, locks, cruise control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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