Enhancing the value quotient. by Kevin Ransom
Now that the minivan market is as crowded as lunch hour in Hong Kong, carmakers know it's not just about space any more.
That is, a minivan's kid- and cargo-hauling capacity is only one of many considerations pondered by today's minvan buyers. Gone are the days when the minivan with the most space was the hands-down victor.
Granted, they're called minivans, but woe to the carmaker who builds a van that actually rides like a van. No, what today's minivan buyer wants is spaciousness along with a car-like ride -- and car-like performance.
Ford Motor Company and Nissan never lost sight of that when they threw in together to design and build the front-drive Mercury Villager and its mechanical twin, the Nissan Quest. Introduced in 1992 as a '93 model, the Villager offers the smooth, quiet ride and road-responsiveness of a sedan.
The Villager and Quest were designed by Nissan and are powered by a Nissan engine and drivetrain, but are assembled in Ford's Avon Lake, Ohio assembly plant, using Ford-supplied components.
Since the Villager is now in its fifth year without a major redesign, the folks at Mercury knew it was time to add to the list of goodies and make a few design tweaks. For '97, the Villager has added such safety features as dual airbags and a child-proof sliding-door lock, optional anti-lock brakes and optional integrated child safety seats.
Our test vehicle -- the top-of-the line Nautica sport-luxury model -- has a base price of $27,495, including Mercury's $580 destination charge. The price was boosted to $30,835 by such options as a $100 anti-theft system; a $370 premium sound system; and a $2870 preferred equipment package -- which includes an eight-way power driver's seat, flip-open liftgate window, leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated outside mirrors, illuminated visor mirror, electronic automatic climate control, keyless entry and electronic instrument cluster. However, the preferred equipment package was discounted $1370, leaving the final MSRP at $29,465.
If the Nautica trim package is any indicator, this sport-luxury model is targeting an upscale market that fancies itself as the boating class. The Nautica package on our white test model included a two-tone paint job (with blue-grey fascias and body cladding), painted white hub caps, and a jaunty yellow-and-white sailboat logo that appears on the rear gate and on each seatback.
If you're in the market for a minivan, you're either a parent or some other form of load-bearer. So, your first introduction to the vehicle is likely to involve the sliding door or rear tailgate.
On that front, the Villager bats one-for-two: the side door -- which comes with a child-proof lock -- slides open very easily, with just one hand.
But operating the rear gate is a two-handed operation. You have to turn the key with one hand while lifting the gate with the other. We pause, pondering: who is a minivan designed for, if not someone with an armful? Once the gate is lifted, it offers enough head clearance for a six-footer.
A fourth-door option, a la Chrysler and the new General Motors minivans, isn't offered.
If a Nissan dealer is handier to your whereabouts, the Quest offers some cosmetic distinctions -- mostly in the design and detailing of the grilles, taillamps, and lower fascias.
The Inside Story
The Villager's standard equipment includes an AM/FM/cassette sound system, tilt steering wheel, flip-out side rear windows, rear defogger, tinted windows, and courtesy dome lamps.
And you've got to say this for Villager designers: when it comes to seating options, they're definitely pro-choice. They allow passengers to choose from 13 different seating-and-cargo configurations.
Behind the driver's and front-passenger captain's chairs are two more captain's chairs. In the rear is a third row bench seat with room enough for three. The backs of the second row captain's chairs and third row bench can all be folded down. Or, after tilting the rear bench seat cushion upward, the bench can slide forward as much as 50 inches.
Folding down any of these seats requires a mere flip of a lever, and in the case of the removeable second-row captain's chairs, it's a one-handed process.
After the second-row seats are removed and the rear-bench seat is folded upward, the Villager offers 126 cubic feet of cargo space. In the minivan universe, everything is relative: 126 cubic feet is modest compared to the Dodge Grand Caravan or Ford Windstar, but it's roomy compared to the Honda Odyssey's 102 cubic feet.
Moving from the front seat back to the rear is fairly painless, although the fold-down armrests on the second-row captain's chairs limit the pass-through space to about eight inches. The front and second-row captain's chairs are quite comfortable, but passengers on the rightmost or leftmost seats on the third-row bench will feel themselves listing toward the center.
Driver's seat headroom was sufficient for our 5'11" test driver, but taller passengers in the second or third rows may feel a bit scrunched. Rear legroom is also a bit limited -- unless, of course, you're a typical minivan buyer and your rear passengers are children.
Our test model was equipped with the power front seats -- eight-way for the driver (including a power lumbar support feature) and four-way for the passsenger. But when reaching for the power switch, your forearm gets pinched between the seat and the armrest.
A flat cupholder pulls out and snaps down from the console side of the front passenger's seat, and there are integrated cupholders on the backs of each of the rear seats.
One feature we really liked was the separate rear-seat climate control and stereo control switches -- complete with two headphone jacks -- built into the modular armrest to the left of the second-row captain's chair. Ditto the info center on the smart-looking, digitized instrument panel of our test van. A push of a button yields such data as fuel economy -- both average and instant -- and the number of miles before the fuel tank is empty. And for the globally-minded, the info center can convert everything to metric.
Ride & Drive
While its cargo capacity is modest compared to the big boys, the Villager makes up for it with its serene ride comfort and good handling.
The Villager's 3.0-liter V-6 engine is paired with a four-speed automatic transmission. On the freeway, that powertrain is more than sufficient to confidently scoot the 3800-pound Villager in and out of traffic, and provides enough boost for emergency passing situations. And even at speeds of 70 mph and up, the Villager is suprisingly and impressively quiet.
Meanwhile, the precision-plus, rack-and-pinion power steering -- in tandem with the McPherson strut front suspension, leaf-spring rear suspension and twin-tube gas charged shock absorbers -- enables the Villager to firmly plant itself while negotiating hard corners. That's no small feat for a tall vehicle.
Sporty isn't a word that wraps itself around minivans very convincingly, but it comes close here.
In an industry where competitors typically take glee in bashing each other's brains out, it's refeshing to see intercorporate cooperation.
The Villager is a good example of the synergy that can occur when two industry leaders put their heads together. Even though the design is five years old, it's aged well, and the Nautica treatment lends a distinctive and attractive touch.
Its performance is lively, its interior attractively versatile and its capacity should be equal to the needs of families whose headcounts haven't gotten into baseball team territory.
And with the addition of additional built-in extras, its value quotient is higher than ever.
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