Giving Chrysler's trio something to think about.
by Robert Ahl
The future looked bright for the Mercury Villager minivan at its introduction six years ago. The minivan market was red-hot in the United States, and the Villager, co-developed with Nissan, promised something new: Japanese engineering and reliability, combined with American minivan marketing know-how.
The Villager came through on its promises - its swoopy styling was well-received, and it rode and handled better than the Chrysler vans of the time. Villager sales met Ford’s modest goals - about 75,000 units a year - until the arrival of the new, better-looking and better-handling Chrysler minivans of 1996. Now, with a year under its belt, the redesigned Villager has recaptured a little of the edge it once held over the Chrysler minivans.
The Villager looks more like a Nissan than a Mercury. That’s because, just like the previous Villager, it was designed at Nissan’s La Jolla, California, design studio alongside its twin, the Nissan Quest. The body was all-new last year, although it didn’t look like it. As in its first edition, the Villager has flush window glass, smoothly curved fenders with a long front end, and flush door handles.
The new body allowed designers to address the Villager’s weaknesses. A second (driver-side) sliding door was added - a necessity in the U.S. minivan market now. Length was increased to improve second-seat legroom and cargo room in back. These improvements required no significant changes to the Villager’s platform or wheelbase. That allowed Ford and Nissan to save money at Ford’s Avon Lake, Ohio, plant - the only plant that builds the Villager and Quest.
That platform has a suspension of struts and control arms up front and a rigid axle located by leaf springs in the rear. The Villager’s carlike handling needed little improvement, but Ford and Nissan made changes anyway. Gas pressure in the front struts was reduced by 31 percent to reduce bump harshness, while jounce and rebound control was increased with changes to strut and shock valving. In back, the multileaf springs were reduced to single leaf to reduce spring friction.
We can’t complain about the accuracy of the Villager’s variable-effort power steering - it has a good sense of straight ahead, and makes the Villager easy to position in a corner. There’s less steering feel than with last year’s car, unfortunately, but at least the ride is noticeably improved. The Villager swallows bumps about as well as a typical midsize U.S. car. The body structure feels impressively stiff over bumps and potholes, particularly for a minivan. Engineers managed to increase torsional stiffness by 15 percent, despite the addition of the fourth sliding door.
Under the hood, there’s more power. The Villager’s SOHC 3.0-liter V-6 (a de-tuned Maxima engine) was dropped. In its place this year is a new 3.3-liter iron-block SOHC V-6 from the Nissan Pathfinder SUV. Mounted transversely for the minivan, the 3.3-liter makes 170 horsepower, 19 more than the 3.0-liter V-6. Curb weight remains about the same as last year, so acceleration to 60 mph is expected to take about 10.5 seconds. That’s competitive with most mainstream minivans. Chrysler’s vans, though, offer three different engine choices - up to 200 horsepower.
The 3.3-liter SOHC revs with a sophisticated sound - certainly more pleasing than Chrysler’s pushrod sixes. The transmission, a Nissan four-speed unit, has been reprogrammed to reduce gear “hunting” when climbing hills. This transmission always seems to find the right gear at the right time, but its shifts seem prolonged, giving the driveline an imprecise, mushy feel. The driveline combination yields fuel economy of 17 mpg on the EPA city cycle, and 24 mpg on the EPA highway cycle, the same economy as last year, despite the more powerful engine. The front-disc, rear-drum brakes have a lighter and more compact standard anti-lock system.
Other than the Villager’s quiet ride and refinement, it’s hard to distinguish this van from its competitors from behind the wheel. That’s OK, because in the U.S. minivan market, it’s features that distinguish one minivan from another, not performance. The Villager comes with many innovative ones. The interior can seat seven - two in front and the middle, and three on a bench seat in the rear. The two rows of rear seats can be folded, or removed from the van. (The seats have wheels.) Remove the second seats, and the third bench can be slid forward and locked, providing lots of room for three and their cargo. There’s also a new removable shelf behind the third seat, which can support up to 30 pounds of smaller items while concealing larger ones underneath.
There’s more. The Villager can be ordered with a dual-mode sound system with front and rear audio controls. It allows parents to listen to the radio, while those in back can listen to a CD with earphones. The power driver’s seat has a memory in the keyless entry system that remembers seat adjustments and mirror positions for two drivers. The climate control system has a pollen and dust filter. In the driver’s sun visor, there’s an optional digital voice recorder that can play a message you record back to you - instructions to a destination, for example.
Safety is a major consideration with minivan customers, and the Villager has its share of safety features. The B- and C-pillars of the body are reinforced with Hexel aluminum honeycomb in key areas for crash strength - one of the first applications of this exotic material on a production car. In fact, the Villager meets 1999 U.S. car-crash standards (minivans are considered trucks in the United States and are subject to less rigorous standards than cars.) Dual front airbags are standard, but then again, they are on all U.S. cars and light trucks these days. An integrated second-row child seat is available. Side airbags are not offered.
The 1999 Villager is priced just slightly more than its Chrysler and GM competitors. Base models start at around $23,000, with loaded versions topping out under $30,000.
The Mercury Villager is not intended to appeal to a broad spectrum of buyers like its Chrysler and GM competitors. Ford offers its larger and much more popular Windstar minivan for that. The Villager is aimed at a smaller market - one that favors carlike ride and refinement and expressive styling above more practical considerations like cargo capacity. The changes for 1999 simply update this idea. Mercury dealers should be pleased.
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