- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

Mountaineer has driven off the straight and narrow. Way off. No longer willing to languish in Explorer's shadow, the new 2002 Mercury Mountaineer boasts a direction of its own.

First built back in 1996, the ol' Mountaineer was a mere clone of Ford's market-stomping Explorer. Very little separated the two other than different grilles, different logos, and an all-wheel-drive system. Mountaineer was a SUV without direction happily towed along in Explorer's substantial wake but mostly lost in its dust.

That was then.

Now the Mercury division is proclaiming bold changes, and the newly crafted Mountaineer is its signature piece.

Satin-finish aluminum trim highlights a techy "European" architecture. Overly large headlamps set off a vertical-toothed grille. Taillamps sport brush guards. Crisp lines and clean curves give the vehicle a machined surface quality. Mountaineer wears the striking design of a concept vehicle. And no one should confuse it with Explorer again.

OK, so the new Mercury looks good. But how does it drive? There are several new features that vastly improve Mountaineer's ride, handling and overall package.

A lighter 4.6-liter single-overhead-camshaft V-8 replaces the old 5-liter push-rod model, yet adds 25 more horses to deliver 240 horsepower, as well as impressive low-end torque. The standard power plant is a 210-horsepower 4-liter V-6 that features a composite plastic intake for decreased noise and better durability. Although suitable for an unloaded vehicle, the V-6 is a tad underpowered. Mountaineer requires the optional V-8.

With its new maintenance-free five-speed automatic transmission, the V-8 Mountaineer powered through traffic and merged on highways with unexpected agility. Speaking of agility, a 2.5-inch wider stance, new suspension and a lower center of gravity provide Mountaineer with excellent handling for a SUV of its weight and girth. On a slalom test track, Mountaineer felt more stable and cornered with little body lean. It carved the course with smooth precision and outperformed several of the most popular all-wheel-drive sport utes.

An all-new independent rear suspension features a unique porthole-in-frame design, which allowed the rear floor to be lowered 7 inches increasing roominess, easing access, and yet, still boosting ground clearance to 9 inches. Mountaineer now lays claim to best-in-class interior room in most categories.

The lower floor also allows the addition of a standard third-row seat and seven-passenger seating. The seat folds flat into the floor to maximize cargo handling. The 40/20/40 split middle seat allows easy access to the third row. And larger door openings also aid entry and exit.

Noise and vibration were greatly improved over the old model. First, a fully boxed frame increased stiffness by a whopping 350 percent. Then noise was reduced by adding body mounts, a more isolated muffler, new door seals, and better insulation in the hood, wheel wells and pillars. During test drives, Mountaineer provided the relaxing quiet ride of a luxury vehicle.

Safety was considered a critical area of improvement for Mountaineer. Standard features include driver and passenger dual-stage air bags and tailored deployment sensors, which determine size of an occupant; side-impact curtain air bags and rollover-protection sensors; lower front bumper to enhance compatibility with cars; safety belt pretensioners; child safety seat attachments in the second and third rows; and a new rear drive shaft that absorbs energy during frontal impacts.

Mercury Mountaineer remains an all-wheel-drive vehicle lacking the off-road guts of a true four-wheel-drive workhorse like Ford Explorer. However, this variation better suits the Mountaineer difference. This is a SUV for the urban driver who benefits from extra traction on poor roads and during inclement weather, but doesn't need extreme boulder-crushing capability.

Pricing for the 2002 Mercury Mountaineer is competitive with other AWD models. The base AWD model begins at $31,210. For $34,920, you can drive a fully decked V-8 model with a luxury package, including climate control, running boards, keyless entry, heated front seats, leather seating, dual-zone temperature control and 16-inch aluminum wheels.

The all-new 2002 Mercury Mountaineer has veered dramatically from its sibling, Ford Explorer. It's heading in a new direction and one that any serious driver should consider following.


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