Mercury's Villager is smaller than popular minivans such as the Dodge Grand Caravan or Ford Windstar. Its dimensions are closer to a base-level, short-wheelbase van. Yet the Villager offers the luxury trappings of the big guys. It also offers more nimble handling and, some would say, smarter styling. Big families may miss the extra room of a long-wheelbase van, but others will prefer the Villager's quick reflexes and versatility.
Villager ($22,510); Villager Sport ($25,735); Villager Estate ($27,210)
Mercury's sole minivan grows from a unique family tree. Rather than sharing a mechanical platform with the Ford Windstar, as you might expect, Villager is based on 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. That deal, made in the early 90s, got Ford into the front-drive-minivan game a little sooner, and apparently has kept both parties satisfied ever since.
So Villager is powered by a Nissan 3.3-liter V6 that provides 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. An electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission takes care of the shifting.
Two sliding doors allow easy entry for rear-seat passengers, while a rear liftgate provides access to the cargo area. Power doors are not available. But the Villager Sport we drove did come with a full complement of amenities, including the optional six-disc CD changer and leather seats, for an as-tested price of $27,555.
Flexibility is the mantra of the minivan customer and Mercury is humming in harmony. With its wide range of seating positions, we're confident that Villager won't leave many owners wanting for usability.
From the driver's seat, Villager offers a sweeping view of the road ahead. The view out the back isn't bad, either. 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-row bench. They can also be removed for a large cargo area. The third-row bench can slide forward into one of six positions on a track that permits nearly five feet of movement front to rear. Sport and Estate models have an adjustable shelf in the cargo area behind the third seat. It locks into three vertical positions and holds 30 pounds.
The standard instrument cluster is all-new for 2001, and a digital cluster returns as a $295 option on Estate. Unfortunately, last year's handy TravelNote voice recorder has been discontinued.
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.
Minivans aren't supposed to be fun to drive, and the Villager doesn't corner 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 path, and rough roads pass under its tires without jarring the steering wheel.
The Sport 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. For the technically curious, the front suspension consists of MacPherson struts with lower A-arms, while the solid rear axle rides on tapered monoleaf springs. Shocks are gas-pressurized front and rear and, as we mentioned before, Sport models get an anti-roll bar in the rear as well as the front.
The brakes can handle repeated stops from highway speeds, but the brake pedal has more travel than a passenger-car driver might want. ABS is a $590 extra, even on flagship Estates.
And despite its trim size and nimble handling, Villager weighs one side or the other of two tons, depending on trim level; add a family and their vacation gear, and the 170-horsepower V6 is a bit taxed when it has to haul it all 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 on two-lanes more comfortable.
Still, Villager is a leaner alternative to the longer-wheelbase minivans, and that makes it an appealing choice. It is more compact than its most popular competitors, so it's easier to park, yet it offers all the flexibility of the bigger minivans and nearly as much room. Mercury says the Villager has found great success with folks who no longer have kids 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.