Since its introduction in 1996, the Mercury Mountaineer sport-utility vehicle has lived in the shadow of the Ford Explorer because it's been nearly identical to Ford's top-selling SUV, which has received the lion's share of promotion.

But things are different for 2002 because Ford Motor is seeking to make Ford and Mercury vehicles significantly different. Thus, the Mountaineer has slicker styling than the Explorer and a standard third-row seat, which is optional for the Explorer.

More Car-Like
The 7-passenger Mountaineer shares its basic midsize design and engines with the thoroughly revamped new Explorer. But it's more posh and has slicker styling, along with a suspension tuned for a smoother ride. The Explorer looks and feels more truck-like.

Both the Explorer and Mountaineer have a longer wheelbase, wider stance and independent rear suspension, which allows better ride and handling—and room for the third seat.

New, Modern V8
There also is a new more modern overhead-camshaft V8, which is optional for $695. The 4.6-liter 240-horsepower V8 has considerably more moxie than the standard 4.0-liter 210-horsepower V6, which has been carried over but upgraded a bit.

The V6 provides decent acceleration if the Mountaineer isn't carrying much of a load. But the V8 is smoother and quieter, although it's rather noisy during hard acceleration. However, it loafs at 2400 rpm at 75 mph.

Both engines are hooked to a responsive 5-speed automatic transmission, which allows quicker acceleration and better fuel economy than a conventional 4-speed automatic. The Explorer offers a manual transmission, but not the Mountaineer. That's just not its style.

Modest Fuel Economy
No midsize sport ute is a fuel economy champ. The heavy Mountaineer's fuel economy thus is only in the low teens in the city and about 20 mpg on highways.

A Mountaineer with the V8 has towing ability of up to 7,300 pounds. But, unlike the Explorer, the Mountaineer has a distinctive all-wheel-drive system with no low-range gearing for rugged off-road driving. It's too genteel for the rough stuff.

The "invisible" all-wheel-drive system doesn't call for driver involvement and is offered with both engines. It distributes 65 percent of engine torque to the rear wheels during normal driving to provide a balanced rear-wheel-drive feel. When the system senses wheel slip or traction loss, it transfers torque to tires with traction. In extreme conditions, nearly all torque can be sent automatically to the front or rear wheels by a viscous coupling.

Car-Like Feel
The Mountaineer retains rugged body-on-frame construction but feels very car-like—like a smaller hybrid auto-based truck. It has sharp steering, solid handling and a smooth ride, although the suspension allows mild bouncing over some roads.

Stopping distances are comforting with the standard 4-wheel disc brakes, equipped with an anti-lock system.

The Mountaineer comes in one trim level, whereas the Explorer is sold in a variety of trim levels to help it keep its long-standing position as the top-selling sport ute.

Well Equipped
The well-equipped Mountaineer costs $28,730 with rear-wheel drive and $30,710 with all-wheel drive. It's better equipped than the Explorer, with most of the comfort and convenience items found in higher-line autos.

However, leather upholstery is $655 and a power sunroof is $800. Both options must be ordered with the $475 Convenience Group. But that's okay because that group doesn't cost much and has power-adjustable pedals to allow a more comfortable driving position for people of various sizes. The pedals also let drivers move a greater distance from the front airbag.

New Safety Feature
Safety features include new optional head-and-chest side-curtain airbags. They deploy from the headliner across about 75 percent of the side glass area to help protect first- and second-row occupants in outboard seating positions during a collision.

It is fairly easy to get in and out of the Mountaineer, although shorter folks may want the $395 running boards for easier entry and exit. Door handles are large, inside and out.

The quiet interior has comfortable front bucket seats. The second-row seat is split 40/20/40 to make it fairly easy to reach the third-row seat, which provides decent room for two adults.

Upscale Interior
The upscale interior's ergonomic instrument panel has gauges that can be easily read and large, smooth controls. Front cupholders are conveniently located on the console and large cupholders for second-row occupants are at the back of that console.

There are front-door storage pockets and rear windows go all the way down, which isn't the case with many cars or trucks.

Folding Rear Seats
Both second- and third-row seats can be folded forward to create a large, flat-surfaced cargo area. That's a plus—but there's hardly any cargo area with the third-row seat in its normal, upright position.

The large, wide cargo area allows easy loading, and the tailgate has a deep glass hatch that swings up.

Mercury did a good job with the new Mountaineer, making it a solid alternative to the Explorer for the very first time.

MSN Autos

© 2009 Microsoft

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