Trim and agile.
by Martin Padgett Jr.
Base Price $22,415
As Tested $27,075
Redesigned and re-engineered last model year, the 2000 Mercury Villager is largely a carryover of the successful, satisfying version that came out in 1999.
This second generation of Villagers is 5 inches longer than the 1992-1998 model, giving rear passengers and cargo more space. A second sliding door readies the Villager for the new millennium. Bins and cubbyholes have been added to make everyday life easier. A unique sliding seat transforms it into a mini-limousine. More power and a quieter engine increase its driving appeal.
Overall, the Villager offers a leaner, more athletic stance than the other minivans on the market. It's smaller than the Dodge Grand Caravan or Ford Windstar, with dimensions closer to a Dodge Caravan. In short, the Villager has all the trappings of the big guys, but offers nimble handling and smart styling. Some may miss the extra room offered by a long-wheelbase Ford or Dodge, but others will prefer the Villager's quick reflexes and versatility.
Three models are available: Villager, Villager Sport and Villager Estate.
The $22,415 base Villager is well equipped, with AM/FM/cassette stereo, power windows, mirrors and door locks, and seven-passenger seating. For 2000, the standard-equipment list grows to include an anti-theft system, remote keyless entry, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, and a heavy-duty battery.
Major option packages include a Convenience Group ($995) that includes a 6-way power driver's seat, privacy glass, light group, front overhead dual map lights, flip-open liftgate window, overhead console and power rear vent windows. The Comfort Group ($995) adds rear air conditioning, rear audio controls, air filtration system and a six-way power drivers seat. The $995 Luxury Group includes leather seating surfaces, the Travelnote memo recorder, the Homelink system, power passenger seat and memory controls for the driver's seat and mirrors. A CD changer, anti-lock brakes, and trailer packages are optional across the lineup.
In addition, a rear seat entertainment system ($1295) is available on any Villager. The system, which has a retractable 6.4-inch color LCD screen, videocassette player, remote control, video game plug and play capability, and headphones, is a timely match to Oldsmobile's package offered on the Silhouette minivans.
Next rung up the ladder is the Villager Sport, at $25,415. The Sport makes both the Convenience and Comfort groups standard. With silver lower body color, the Sport replaces the base second-row bench seat with luxurious captain's chairs. The sporty part includes lower-profile P225/60R16 tires to replace the base P215/70R15 rubber. The Sport model also adds white-faced instruments, two-tone paint and other sporty trim. Leather is optional.
At the top of the heap, the $27,115 Villager Estate has the Convenience, Comfort, and Luxury groups standard. It has gold lower body color, along with the an air-filtration system, rear air conditioning, a flip-open liftgate window, third-row power vent windows, a power driver's seat, and privacy glass all standard.
Mercury's sole minivan has a unique family tree. When the family-wagon craze took Ford by surprise in the early 1990s, the company turned to Nissan to help design the Mercury Villager and its cousin, the Nissan Quest. In exchange for the Nissan-based platform and drivetrain, Ford provided a factory in northeast Ohio to build both the Mercury Villager and the Nissan Quest.
Villager and Quest have proven that blended families can produce great offspring. This new second-generation Villager offers a more practical, flexible interior with increased power to satisfy drivers who might be looking at sport-utility vehicles.
All Villagers use a 3.3-liter V6 engine that provides 170 horsepower. For 2000, the engine meets California's strict LEV (Low Emissions Vehicle) requirements, making it one of the cleanest minivans on the market. An electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission takes care of the shifting.
One body style is offered. Two sliding doors allow easy entry for rear-seat passengers, while a rear liftgate provides access to the cargo area. The Villager Sport we drove came with a full complement of options, including a six-disc CD changer, leather seats, for an as-tested price of $27,075.
Flexibility is the mantra of the minivan customer and Mercury is humming the same chant. Between the number of doors it offers and the number of seating positions, we're confident that the Villager won't leave many owners wanting for usability.
From the driver's seat, the Villager offers a sweeping view of the road ahead. The view out the back isn't bad, either. The Villager's cabin is glassy and tall, giving a commanding view all around. The bucket seats in the first and second rows are shaped correctly for long-haul drives, and the doors have armrests at the proper height.
The second and third rows of seats are the Villager's prime asset. The second-row bucket seats tip forward for easy access to the third bench. They can also be removed for a large cargo area. The third-row bench can be moved forward into one of six positions on a track that permits nearly five feet of movement front to rear. Behind the third-row bench, an adjustable shelf offers three vertical positions and holds 30 pounds, a nice idea that adds versatility.
This year's Villager has the latest child-seat anchoring system, which the government will require of all vehicles within a few years. However, the integrated child-seat option from last year has been deleted.
Instrumentation is complete and well designed. Radio, climate controls and rear-wiper buttons are conveniently placed and well marked. The CD changer, located below the radio and climate control stack, is out of the way, but can be reached without getting out of the car. Some of the gray and black plastics in the Villager aren't the finest we've seen, but overall the Villager's interior is a fine place from which to pilot the family.
Two clever features could fit in the palm of a kid's hand. The visor-mounted garage door remote has three programmable buttons that eliminate the need for a clunky clip-on opener. On the same driver visor is a voice note recorder, which stores about a minute's worth of messages. You can leave yourself little verbal notes -- "Milk, eggs, and butter" -- or, as we did, pit your vocal abilities against Sheryl Crow's and play it back for unlucky passengers.
Minivans aren't supposed to be fun to drive and the Villager doesn't cut corners like a sports car, but it does handle well enough to generate some enthusiasm in the curves. The steering is sharp and accurate, and the Villager tracks very well on the highway -- much better than most minivans. Stiff crosswinds barely move it from its intended track, and rough road surfaces pass under the tires without jarring the steering wheel.
The suspension does a good job of taming the natural roll and lean of a tall-bodied wagon. The ride seems just a touch stiff over concrete joints and tar strips, but composed over most other highway and street surfaces. The front struts were revised for 1999 to improve rebound control, while delivering a softer ride. At the rear, new single-leaf tapered springs replace two-leaf units for a smoother ride.
The brakes can handle repeated stops from highway speeds, but the brake pedal has more travel than a passenger-car driver might want. A new anti-lock brake system is designed for improved durability.
The 170-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 is taxed when it has to propel this 3800-pound vehicle loaded with a family and full vacation gear up a steep grade. On a solo run up the East Coast, laden only with Christmas gifts, the Villager was able to overtake other vehicles in a reasonable stretch, but more horsepower would have made passing more comfortable on two-lane roads.
The Villager is a leaner alternative to the longer-wheelbase minivans and that makes it an appealing choice. It is more compact than the mass-market minivans, so it's easier to park, yet it offers all the flexibility of bigger minivans and nearly as much room. Mercury says the Villager has found great appeal with folks who do no longer have children to cart around, but still prefer the comfort and convenience of a minivan.
Villager offers clean styling, a commanding view of the road, and a clever interior design with optional captain's chairs. All of this makes it a great alternative to the Dodge Caravan. Though prices roll up quickly when you add all the goodies, the Villager's driving characteristics and flexibility make it a good value.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.