Montego gives Mercury additional lift

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Mercury has been an endangered automotive nameplate for most of this decade.

In recent years it has been threatened with extinction much like Plymouth and more recently Oldsmobile.
It would be a shame to see another storied American brand leave the automotive world.
Fear not. Help has arrived for Mercury, which was conceived in 1938 to bridge the gap between the pedestrian Ford and the luxury Lincoln brand at Ford Motor Company.

It appears Ford Motor Company has pulled Mercury off life support with the arrival of the full-sized Montego sedan and it is comfortably breathing on its own again. And more reinforcements are promised with cars such as the mid-sized Milan, shown for the first time at the Chicago Auto Show.

Based on the Montego, the prognosis looks good. The Montego seems to be just what Mercury needs, an all-new full-sized front-wheel drive (or all-wheel-drive) sedan to move into the lineup beside the venerable Grand Marquis.

The Montego is based on the Ford Five Hundred, and both nameplates have been selling at a solid clip over the past few months despite criticism of its design.

The Montego offers scads of interior space and one of the largest trunks in the big-car ranks in a package that is more than a foot shorter than the Grand Marquis, which, by the way, is still being sold at a rather-healthy 85,000 unit annual pace.

We recommend that those folks who still come by the Mercury store to test drive the latest Grand Marquis, take a spin in the Montego. It may be an eye opener.

It’s in the interior that the Montego really shines. It might be the most spacious car for its size in the world (its 200-inch length puts it in the same class as the late Buick LeSabre, the new Buick LaCrosse, the former Pontiac Bonneville and the Chevrolet Impala).

But the Montego blows away those cars with stretch-out room in front and real stretch-out room in back. Head and leg room abound. It’s a spectacular use of available space.

And the space story doesn’t end with the passenger compartment. The Montego has a massive trunk, the biggest in the sedan kingdom. It holds golf bags galore.

It should please older Mercury buyers who have come to expect big interiors on their big sedans. And it should intrigue families who still have a couple of teens at home to occasionally haul around.

The first-rate living conditions don’t stop with space. The dashboard area is attractive and well laid out. Materials are above average and the seams neatly fit. It becomes irritating to get in a car every day with sloppy fit and finish. Pride in ownership evaporates. That won’t happen in the Montego.

Another noteworthy achievement of smart-thinking Ford engineers is the commanding view of the road. This was accomplished with seats positioned to raise the H-point (the position of the driver’s hip joint) and through the use of a big area of glass. The higher seating area also allows for easier entry and exit.
All these things make the Montego a truly modern entry in the family sedan sweepstakes.
Drive the Montego and you might be surprised by the sophistication of the transmission options. The front-wheel drive models come with a 6-speed automatic that trumps the competition in the 30-grand price range. And the all-wheel drive models are outfitted with a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

We prefer the CVT, although it may take some getting used to, especially for people who are used to feeling the shift points.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Montego is the size of its engine. It comes with Ford’s 3.0-liter Duratec V-6 generating 203 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque.
Although acceleration is adequate, some would-be buyers may not think it measures up in a car that is designed to approach the entry-level luxury class.
It has amazed us for the past year how an auto company could develop an all-new, high-quality sedan without developing a new engine, or at least making available a larger powerplant as an option.

If the Montego falters, it will be because of the lack of engine options. Virtually every competitor in the 25-to-30-grand class has bigger engine options including the Chrysler 300 (250-horsepower V-6), Honda Accord (240 horsepower) Nissan Maxima (265 horsepower), Mitsubishi Galant (230 horsepower) and even the 2005 Chevy Impala (240 horsepower).

The engine is not a deal breaker to us. But you can’t help longing for a little more power at times, particularly when you know it’s out there to be had for about the same cash outlay.

The Montego has just two trim levels, Luxury and Premier. Starting at $24,995, the Mercury has an impressive array of standard features including 17-inch wheels, six-way power driver’s seat, air conditioning, stereo with CD player, cruise control and wood interior trim.

Move up to the Premier for $27,420 and 18-inch wheels, leather seating surfaces, heated eight-way power driver’s seat and four-way power passenger seat, upgraded stereo system and gray Zapelli wood trim are on the menu of standard equipment.

Our all-wheel drive Premiere edition carried a base price of $28,895. A couple of options including moonroof and side-curtain airbags brought the bottom line to $30,385.

One feature that might be sought after in a sedan in this price range is satellite navigation. Unfortunately, it’s not available on the Mercury.

The Montego, especially with all-wheel drive, will give a family a modern and comfortable mode of economical transportation.

A word of caution – Ford has underestimated the demand for all-wheel drive and you might have to join a short waiting list to get that option especially in the Eastern and Northern states with severe weather conditions.