Minggu, 08 Juni 2008



Mercury Grand Marquis (Outside)

Mercury Grand Marquis (Inside)

By Sajeev Mehta

Way forward. Bold Moves. Screw that. If America wants a bold, innovative car, they'll buy a Toyota. If they want something honest, inexpensive and comfortable, they'll buy a Ford. If they want an honest car with added spizzarkle, they'll spend a little more for a Mercury. Well, that's how it used to be, until Ford started building sub-par Japanese wanna-be's. Thankfully, the Blue Oval offers at least one rear-wheel drive automobile that stays true to the company's roots: the Mercury Grand Marquis.

Park the Grand Marquis next to its foreign counterparts and it's clear that the American luxobarge ain't livin' large no mo'. Snout-to-tail comparisons with a Camry require measurements smaller than a foot; millimeters differentiate their relative heights. Fortunately, the Marquis' ping-pong table hood and aircraft-carrier rear deck survive into the new millennium, while its broad shoulders continue to evoke memories of Officer Badass. Although the Marquis' police-a-like shape sends shivers down the spines of Boy Racers, the car's basic design is wildly inoffensive. This despite a new-for-'06 schnoz that blends-in about as well as a Speedo-wearing fat guy in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.

The Grand Marquis' soft-touch keyless entry system ensures that its well-aged core clientele never lock themselves out, or loved ones in. (Take that, OnStar!) Even better, its portals swing open with all the reassuring monumentality of an '80's Mercedes S-Class. Once inside, the barge's beltline makes for excellent visibility and ensures easy parking maneuvers for one so broad of beam (the car, not its driver). Although the luscious nomenclature evokes memories of "Studio 54" decadence, the Grand Marquis' cabin sports a cabaret of dull and brittle coverings– in stark contrast to the fake tree trim glowing with radioactive glee on the car's massive dash.

The Grand Marquis' appointments can't hold a candle to a Camry's, but the big Merc is still leagues ahead of the Chrysler 300's blue light special. A pair of indulgent seats offers another clear advantage. Fold the deeply padded armrests and a spare bedroom awaits episodes of marital distress. Or perhaps a second honeymoon with the cavernous backseat? Six-passenger seating in a sedan is a forgotten delight, and beats the third row penalty box found in any similarly priced SUV. Crank up the tunes and feel the bass booming from the bowels of Mercury's Brick House trunk. The Commodores never sounded so mighty-mighty.

The Marquis keeps the muscle car flame alive with a redesigned analog gauge cluster, complete with its first-ever tachometer. Fire-up the cammer V8 and a distant rumble filters in from the ghosts of big-block Cyclones and Marauders. Although the Grand Marquis' mill only musters 239 horses, there's more than enough torque to take the "grind" out of the daily. Four gears are all you get (only one less than you really need). If you're young enough to read this site on a regular basis, or old enough to remember the Blues Brothers, you'll want Mercury's little known police package: cop engine (dual exhausts), cop tires (speed rated), cop shocks (monotube dampers) and cop suspension (revised front coils, Watts-link rear with heavy duty air springs and bigger sway bars). Evo's keep on frontin' but that guy in the Camry is toast.

Yank the column shifter to first and hammer the throttle. The Marquis' composed suspension, marginally-involving steering, torquey mill and RWD orientation make it an honest-to-God hoot in the corners. Pseudo-Super Troopers whose courage exceeds their skill benefit from the Marquis' five star crash test ratings. Credit the same brick shit house construction for the smoothest ride in town: hydroformed components on a body-on-frame chassis. Pot holes, speed bumps or subcompacts are a distant blip on the butt radar. Factor in a solid 21mpg (on regular gas) in mixed driving, and rough-riding, gas-guzzling SUVs hang their heads in shame.

Obviously the Grand Marquis is no match for a stick-shifted V6 Accord or Altima. But the Marquis ushers the family to grandma's house in far greater comfort. And, lest we forget, the Marquis' price lines up against baseline, four-cylinder versions of those wrong-wheel drive whips. According to the official Mercury website, the last of the Great V8 Interceptors has $5000 on the hood. And the deal grows sweeter down at the showroom. Hell, they're giving them away!

So why are Matlock fans the only people buying Mercury's Grand Marquis? Clearly, Ford turned its back on the old soldier; their press gang can't even be bothered to update the website with photos of the Marquis' analog instrumentation. No matter. It's time for pistonheads to reclaim old-school American cars for their own. The fact that Ford is killing this platform for some weak-kneed front driver only makes the Grand Marquis more desirable. And don't forget: it never hurts a speed demon to look like a cop.


By Jonny Lieberman

During a business trip to Canada, my manager and I watched a Swedish colleague use his cell phone to hold a three-way conference call with Tel Aviv and Hong Kong. The boss was infuriated; his US cell couldn’t even reach Toronto from Toronto. He called Sprint on a land line. "This is unacceptable,” he screamed. “It’s un-American to sell technology that’s seven years behind the Europeans!" The exact same thing’s been said about Detroit’s inability to counter fuel-sipping low-emission hybrids. Enter, finally, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid. Ah, but is the gas/electric Merc ready for prime time or is it just a Johnny-come-lately phoning it in?

Like its platform partners, the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute, the Mariner is a dapper looking cute-ute. While I've never been a fan of the brand’s twenty-toothed family grill, the vertical blingery suits the Mariner’s massive front bumper like shoulder pads on a three-button suit. The SUV’s tight and tidy side-sculpting is equally well-wrought; the concave effect suggests a healthy, trim vehicle with a bit of sporting pretension. Our tester’s Charcoal Beige Clearcoat metallic paint kept the chrome jewelry from visual overload, while the 16" five-spoke aluminum wheels that (nearly) fill the arches show brand-faithful restraint. If ever a badge-engineered vehicle gained a little something in translation, the Mariner is it.

Inside the Mariner’s cabin, it’s an ersatz world after all. The soft-roader’s combination of fake leather, fake wood and fake aluminum is strangely effective, in a 50’s Las Vegas hotel room kinda way. Although it’s not a bad place to spend some time saving the planet, there are plenty of cavils: the HVAC knobs (lifted from the Focus) couldn’t go any further down market if they cruised Union Square in a miniskirt, the leather-wrapped steering wheel is Olsen Twin thin, and the cow-clad seats are less supportive than a deadbeat dad. Despite six-way power seats, a perfect seating position proved eternally elusive. And I dare you to find the seat-heater button.

The Mariner’s Nav system/head unit is the SUV’s greatest ergonomic failure. The credit card-sized screen can’t fit street names — just tiny white lines. Why didn’t Ford install the Freestyle’s big, beautiful LCD touchscreen? Half the fun (satisfaction?) of driving a hybrid comes from watching a real-time mpg readout while modulating the throttle and brakes to conserve as much fuel as possible. The Mariner's micro-screen doesn’t let you check your power source (Engine? Batteries? Hybrid-drive?) and mileage at the same time. You have to flip back and forth between the two screens– which is bad form for a company publicly committed to automotive safety.

Speaking of not dying, it’s best to pay careful attention to the Mariner’s brakes. Thanks to the regenerative braking gear, the anchor pedal weighs a ton. There is simply no way to smoothly roll on the stopping power; you have to stomp. The batteries and second engine benefiting from the recharge push the Mariner’s GVW up to nearly two tons. The extra weight degrades the tall, short wheel-base truck's ride and handling. At 80mph, driving the Mariners feels as if you’re riding a dented washboard.

There are three types of propulsion. Flutter the go-pedal and the torquey 94hp electric mill does the clean deed (although I could only get the Mariner into full-electric mode when tooling around parking lots). Mash the gas and the Hybrid switches to its 2.3L I-4 Atkins-style dead dino diet. Ninety-seven percent of the time you’re using both mills. After a few hundred miles of mixed driving the bottom line was… 25.8mpg. That’s nearly the same as the 21/24 EPA estimates for the four wheel-drive 2.3-liter Mariner. What's the point? Why spend $10k more to haul around an extra 400 lbs. netting you roughly 10% better fuel economy?

It gets worse. In stop and go traffic, the Mariner’s powerplant hibernates. With the engine off, calling the already weak air conditioning anemic is an insult to the iron-deficient. Mercury’s recommendation: when it’s “overly hot” switch the controls to MAX AC, which keeps the engine from shutting off. During summertime daylight hours, you get to choose between saving the planet and not sweating to death. The reverse is also true. The instructions issue the same warning when it’s “overly cold;” the Mariner’s electric motor is little more than a space heater. If you live in a flat, temperate climate and enjoy slow speed cruising, Mercury has a very handsome hybrid to sell you.

Taken as a whole, the Mariner Hybrid can’t compete with Toyota’s more complete hybrid Highlander. But at least Mercury has started the hybrid conversation with its mid-market buyers. Bold moves aren’t usually successful first time; they require follow through and persistence. As long as Mercury keeps hitting redial, they’ll eventually make the connection.


By Sajeev Mehta

My parents' first new car was a 1970 Montego coupe. They liked it so much they added a Montego sedan to the ranks– just in time to transport this nascent pistonhead home from the hospital. They no longer own a Montego. And soon, no one else will either. At least not a new one. Ford is about to rebadge the current Montego (a gussied-up Ford Five Hundred) a Sable; just as they’re about to rebadge the Five Hundred (the Taurus’ replacement) a Taurus. Which leaves everyone exactly where they started. I think. Let’s take a look.

The Five Hundred, sorry, Montego, began life as an Audi A6-a-like penned by the same designer who gave us the A6. Ugly it ain't. Boring it is: a third grade piano recital on wheels. Needless to say, the Quicksilver Boys grossly underestimated the need for brand specific product differentiation. Adding an aluminum-toned spizzarkleprow, LED eye catchers and Xenon lighting to a Ford Five Hundred is no substitute for unique sheetmetal. It’s like putting lipstick on a sloth.

Even if the Montego had the svelte sheetmetal to lure the public into a Mercury showroom, there's precious little inside the car’s cabin to keep them there. Swing open those tall and imposing portals and the geriatric bling theme continues apace. Sure, the dark wood-effect trim and richly textured leather hides exude a slight amount of Teutonic flavor. But someone forgot to sweat the details. The chrome ringed gauges look great– provided you can ignore the wall o' matte black buttons on the center stack.

You can see where Ford—sorry, Mercury thought they had a winner. Although fundamentally utilitarian, the Montego’s cabin is also fundamentally huge. According to the age-inappropriate image on the official website, the trunk can swallow enough gear for a small rock band. Stratocaster owners: you can fold down both the rear seat (trunk pass-through) and the front passenger seat and lay your naked, unsecured axe across two rows. How great is that?

Anyway, the Montego’s back seat is Old School Caddy wide and reasonably cushy; there’s plenty of room for three real adults back there. Unfortunately, the space offers all the charm of an airplane hangar. A full complement of airbags (including a side canopy system) ensure five star crashworthiness all ‘round, save for rollover (four stars), which may explain the class-exclusive rollover sensor.

At nearly 201 inches, the turnpike cruisin' Mercury creams most any bump, lump or stump. The spoke-intensive 18" wheels keep things on course, but the noise from the Pirellis at cruising speed throws a howler monkey into an otherwise competent isolation chamber.

Ease the Montego into a corner and it’s clear that this is not your typical land yacht. Thanks to its Volvo-fettled underpinnings, this large, nose-heavy, front wheel-drive sedan does a superb job at keeping understeer at bay without sacrificing ride quality. Predictably enough, the Montego’s steering is to road feel what a Stannah stair lift is to a leg workout. But it’s accurate enough to place the big Merc with precision. And if you don’t, four wheel discs will save your bacon (them’s the brakes).

Of course, this assumes you can amass enough forward speed to get into trouble. Ford's last-gen Duratec V6 welcomes you with a coarse hum at idle that stays all the way to the mill’s modest redline (5700rpm). The powerplant’s 203 horses struggle to tow the Montego’s massive 3670lb frame from rest to 60mph in eight seconds— or any other accelerative metric you can name.

Luckily, the powertrain has a singular saving grace. Well, six of them. The Montego's close-ratio six cog slushbox canes the motor rapidly enough for most, netting respectable fuel economy (21/29) in the process. Even a certified lead foot will find the combination of a flat torque curve and an always-willing gearbox adequate at part throttle, if wholly unacceptable at full-tilt.

In short, the Montego is a fine car for buyers seeking an unassuming full-size sedan that’s a tiny bit more exclusive and sparkly than a Ford Five Hundred, for around $825 more (base to base). Too bad this niche exists only in the world of product planners and flak-talking spin-doctors. Everyone else flocks to well-established import sedans or “real” American cars like the Grand Marquis. In fact, Mercury’s royal sweetheart sports a competitive sticker price and frequently triples the Montego’s monthly sales numbers. Oops.

The Volvo-Mercury is a bowl of corporate porridge that’s so "right" even Goldilocks smells a trap from a mile away. It’s no match for smaller cars in its class and lacks the swagger of its Panther chassis partner. Even with (another) retro name and modest upgrades, the Montego's successor faces an uphill battle in 2008. Ford’s money would have been better spent whipping the old Crown Victoria, Mercury Marquis and Lincoln LS into shape.


By William C Montgomery

Milan is the fashion capital of Italy. Step off the tourist trail and it’s a combination of industrial parks and urban sprawl with only slightly more charm than Trenton, New Jersey. Still, you have got to give Ford’s beleaguered near-luxury division credit for naming their hecho-en-Mexico Fusion derivative after the home of Alfa Romeo, rather than resorting to the alphanumerics afflicting Lincoln’s take on the same model. But the question remains: is Mercury’s glammed-up Fusion a credible fashionista or an industrial waste?

The Milan's grill is the most striking difference between Mercury’s mid-market sedan and the car upon which it's based. While Ford decorated their front wheel-driver’s front room with Venetian blinds, Mercury opted for verticals. Less obviously, the Milan’s lower front fascia is more pronounced, the bright work less blingy, the wheels statelier and the rear lights look less… like an aftermarket afterthought.

Subtle as they are, the changes work. The Milan projects greater maturity and wealth than its FoMoCo donormobile. And compared to the redesigned Toyota Camry, whose front-end looks like a saggy-nosed boxer after years of cartilage pulverizing abuse, the Milan is elegantly beautiful.

Color has a Jekyll and Hyde effect on Milan’s mien. The more vibrant hues– Redfire Red, Ebony Black and Dark Blue Pearl– establish a welcome contrast to the crystalline headlight cluster and chrome accents, projecting the requisite eau de upmarket. Conversely, the bland non-color tones– Charcoal Beige, Dune Pearl, Light Tundra, Satellite Silver, Silver Frost or Tungsten Silver— create a pale and pasty pallet of pernicious pabulum.

The Milan’s interior is proof positive that Ford knows how to design and assemble a comfortable, graceful and ergonomic interior. OK, the panel gaps around the dash top cubby can be seen from outer space. And most of the luxury stuff that should be basic– automatic climate control, heated seats, leather wrapped steering wheel with secondary controls, etc.– is optional (bumping the Milan's price towards the Lincoln Fusion homonym). But there are some genuinely nice touches.

For example, the Milan’s center-mounted analog clock is so-not-plastic and the wood is. And kudos to Ford Mercury for the clever center storage bin that combines an MP3 jack, Nintendo-friendly power point and change holder.

The Milan’s elegant monochromatic gauges could use a touch of red, as in REDLINE. While it’s not a concern when driving a Milan equipped with a five-speed automatic, pistonheads opting for stick shift (available on the four cylinder engine) must rely on their ears to avoid triggering the engine’s self-preservation software.

As with the Fusion, the Milan comes in a choice of a 2.3-liter in-line four or a 3.0-liter Duratec V6. The four-cylinder mill produces a class appropriate power (160hp @ 6250rpm) and economy (23/31mpg). It revs effortlessly and remains suitably hushed at cruising speed.

Unfortunately, the manual transmission’s 3.31:1 first gear ratio is a little too much for an engine whose 150ft.-lbs. peak torque doesn’t arrive until 4250rpm. (Translation: unless you rev the engine and dump the clutch north of 3000rpm, you ain't going nowhere fast.)

The V6 Milan delivers an altogether different driving experience. Mated to a six-speed slushbox, the silken six-cylinder engine puts Toyota’s, Nissan’s and Honda’s mills to shame, redefining smooth, effortless, frugal and dependable power for the entire mid-size market.

Just kidding.

Don’t get me wrong: the Duratec is a fine engine. But discriminating buyers will notice that the Milan’s 221hp six banger quickly runs out of puff, especially compared to Honda Accord (244hp) Toyota Camry (268hp) and Nissan Altima (270hp). The Milan's mill is also a pretty thrashy unit, with a decidedly downmarket sonic signature.

While the Milan’s mechanical anemia should eliminate torque steer, it doesn’t. Under hard acceleration, the sedan's front end rises like a powerboat as the forward donuts scrabble for purchase. For less adrenal (read: older) buyers, it’s no biggie. These comfort-oriented customers will be well satisfied with the Milan’s sophisticated short and long arm (SLA) front and multi-link rear suspenders. So equipped, the magic carpet Milan surmounts highway irregularities with near-Camry refinement.

On the fun-to-drive side of things, the Milan carves corners with Accordian poise and precision. I'm not saying the mid-sized Merc begs to be whipped. But when your inner hooligan tempts your soul, the Milan has enough spring in its step to keep everyone heading in the right direction.

At the end of my test drive, I asked my handler why anyone would buy a Mercury Milan over a Ford Fusion. “Why eat with a plastic fork when you can dine with a silver spoon?” I reckon that depends on what and where you’re eating. And even if we accept the analogy, the Milan is, at best, a silver plated plastic fork.

Anyway, the bottom line: for around $600 over the Fusion SE, you can buy a few optional trim choices and a slightly nicer looking ride. And that’s about it. I don't know about you, but that doesn’t sound very glamorous to me.