Safe, solid, practical, and with passion for driving.
by Ted West
Base Price (MSRP) $19,185
As Tested (MSRP) $25,115
This bread-and-butter sedan has one big trick up its sleeve: It's a hot drive for even the most dedicated enthusiast. And it surrenders nothing, nothing, in safety, comfort, or practicality.
Mercury Sable resides at the large end of the current mid-size scale. Its interior is spacious and pleasing, and by and large, its controls and instrumentation are contemporary, straightforward and easy to use. Its list of safety features is comprehensive, its five-star front impact rating from the federal government is unbeatable. Its trunk is capacious.
Sable even offers a real station-wagon variant, an increasingly rare choice in a market dominated by SUVs and minivans. But unlike those taller vehicles, the Sable wagon is every bit as fun to drive as the sedan, while still adding kid and cargo-hauling capacity.
In short, Mercury's Sable is a winner, with no reservations.
Sable sedan comes in GS ($19,185), LS ($20,285) and LS Premium ($21,585) trim levels. The wagon skips the mid-level and comes only in GS ($20,985) and LS Premium ($22,685) trim.
LS equipment includes a combination of cloth and leather upholstery, a power driver's seat, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, heated mirrors and power-adjustable pedals.
LS Premium models add electronic climate control, automatic headlights and illuminated vanity mirrors. LS Premium sedans stick with the cloth-and-leather interior combination, while LS Premium wagons offer fabric on the front and middle seats and vinyl in the rear. But LS Premium wagons add an adjustable roof rack, inside luggage cover, two hidden storage compartments, rear window wiper/washer, power antenna, and four-wheel-disc brakes, the latter oddly not offered on any Sable sedan.
Mercury installs two engines in the Sable. GS and LS versions get the 3.0-liter, overhead-valve "Vulcan" V6, a capable old cast-iron workhorse currently rated 155 horsepower. Standard in LS Premium sedan and wagon, and optional ($695) in the LS sedan, is Ford's excellent and exciting "Duratec" V6, with dual overhead cams, 24 valves, and 200 horsepower. A four-speed automatic is the only transmission offered.
Lincoln-Mercury expects just 10 percent of Sable buyers to settle for the Vulcan V6. The vigorous 24-valve Duratec V6 is 30 pounds lighter, despite its more complex valvetrain, and delivers significantly better response and performance.
Anti-lock brakes (ABS), side-impact airbags and traction control are offered as stand-alone options, or together as the $995 Secure Group.
Sable received a moderate re-styling in 2000, which also resulted in some functional improvements, including a higher tail and larger trunk, headlights that were 25 percent more powerful, and better shrouding of the windshield wipers for reduced noise. The 2001 model is virtually identical.
Looks are of course subjective, but we like what we see. This latest Sable is not as daringly innovative as the ground-breaking design that introduced the nameplate back in '86. Since then, the Sable and its Ford-badged sibling, the Taurus, seem to have slowly swapped places, so that the Sable is now the conservative older sister and the Taurus the adventurous sprite. But the old girl is still pretty easy on the eyes, if now in a buttoned-down, business-suit sort of way.
Like the very best automotive designs, Sable comfortably blends beauty and function. Its total passenger space, at 102.5 cubic feet, is only 6 percent short of the full-size Grand Marquis'. Subjectively, the Sable's interior feels huge, even for a mid-size. The sedan offers a generous cargo space of 16 cubic feet. The station wagon has 38.8 cubic feet of space with the rear seat up and a cavernous 81.2 cubic feet with the seats down.
The Sable cabin is a refined interior space furnished with controls and instruments that are admirably straightforward and user-friendly. Last year's re-design gave front-seat passengers almost an inch more headroom, while rear passengers were gifted with nearly two additional inches of headroom. The power-adjustable pedals (standard on LS, optional on GS) provide up to thee inches of movement, which enhances safety by allowing shorter drivers to find a comfortable seating position without sitting dangerously close to the airbag.
Gone is the heavy-handed oval theme of previous Taurus/Sable dashboards. Now large, legible gauges are set into a two-shade panel, the upper panel toned darker to reduce glare and the lower panel keyed to the inside door covering. Audio and climate controls are mounted in the center of the dash which, while aesthetically an improvement, still presents an intimidating array of small, similarly shaped push-buttons with tiny labels. At first glimpse, this layout may impress you with its high-tech appearance, but it can be a challenge to find and hit the right button while battling prime-drive-time traffic.
Sable can be ordered in either five or six-passenger configurations, pretty much regardless of trim. Technically, the GS is a six passenger, while the LS and LS Premium upgrade to front bucket seats. But just $105 adds bucket seats, a console, and a floor shifter to the GS; while a no-cost option on LS Premium provides a front bench seat with a neat mini-console that flips out when the center is unoccupied.
If you specify both a five-passenger layout and Sable's premium audio, then the six-disc CD changer goes in the floor console, a vastly more convenient location than the trunk. The floor console also provides an dedicated air conditioning outlet for rear-seat passengers. The twin front bucket seats deliver surprisingly good lateral support without incurring a penalty in seating comfort, even for larger drivers. The cushions and seatbacks are on the firm side, which might initially seems a shortcoming; but firmer seats, if well-designed, usually feel more comfortable and reduce fatigue on long drives. This is certainly the case in the Sable.
The Sable's rear seating for three is spacious and comfortable, with the two outboard positions having a semi-bucket form. In our LS Premium, a pull-down center elbow rest presented us with two cupholders. And if you ski, or carry ladders everywhere you go, the positively enormous split-seat pass-through into the trunk will make your life immeasurably easier.
Other nice touches in the LS Premium include dual vanity mirrors with a rheostat for raising or lowering their illumination. Also, the sunroof opens with one touch.
In the area of safety, the Sable has earned NHTSA's top five-star frontal crash-test rating. It is equipped with dual-stage airbags, which sense the intensity of the impact and deploy at one of two different speeds. In lesser impacts, gentler deployment reduces the risk of injury by the bags themselves. Head-and-chest side airbags are available as an option. Seatbelt pretensioners are standard, as is a system which releases small amounts of seatbelt tension to reduce injury.
For such a relatively large and roomy family sedan, Sable is startlingly agile, controllable, even sporty. Even with a stoic Vulcan in the engine room, the Sable chassis proves itself anything but unemotional. Its finely tuned variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering provides just the right amount of boost (less of it as road speed increases) and a constant stream of information to the driver. This live-wire steering combines with a finely tuned front suspension to deliver surprisingly sporting driving sensations. Driven to the extremes, the Sable takes the safest course, understeering to warn the driver that traction has been overcome. But before exceeding the tires' grip, this family taxi feels for all the world like a closet sports sedan.
Having said that, the Sable still manages to provide a comfortable ride, one that gently deletes even the worst broken pavement as it passes beneath the wheels. Mercury has achieved a fine balance between crisp handling and gentle ride, the same sort of balance that has earned the best European sedans their loyal following.
Add the superb Duratec V6 to this mix, and the Sable really comes alive. Its fine handling qualities now complement a very responsive engine. When heavy throttle is applied, acceleration is sharp enough that traction control is needed to prevent wheel spin. The Duratec makes a tactful but nonetheless exciting growl. So equipped, the Sable allows the hidden hurrier in you full expression, but in this car, who will suspect? It's just a family sedan, right? (Just smile and nod--nobody needs to know your secret.) A test drive of the Duratec will demonstrate that it positively transforms the personality of this Mercury. With its finger-snap responsiveness, the Sable has a heads-up, ready-to-run willingness that knowledgeable drivers will find irresistible.
The Mercury Sable is a happy blend of family-car safety and mid-market value. When equipped with the optional Duratec V6, it is blessed with the kind of performance and agility expected in expensive sports sedans. The Sable combines the virtues of high quality, five-star crash protection and comfortable accommodations, plus a healthy helping of driving fun. That's a combination that should see Mercury's star player selling large numbers well into the millennium.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.