One element that hasn't changed much is the exterior styling. This could be good, too, as it ensures retained value in new Mountaineers as well as those already on the road. Though attractive, the styling is not terribly exciting, however, tending more toward country-club sleek than off-road robust. And after four years, what once looked fresh and new doesn't any more. Minor tweaks here and there let cognoscenti distinguish last year's from this year's but the differences will slip right by most folks on Main Street, U.S.A.
The Mercury Mountaineer is, of course, a higher-end, paternal twin of the Ford Explorer. This is both good and bad. Overall, the Explorer is a superb product, but some of what isn't executed so well in the Ford version is shared with the pricier Mercury.
The interior door handles, for example, are so awkwardly configured that they immediately come up in conversations about these vehicles, and Mercury has already announced plans to redesign them. It's not all bad news for the 2006 Mountaineer cabin, however. In fact, there is much to love here. The dash is trimmer, more elegant, and it communicates essential information cleanly. Multi-adjustable front seats make for comfortable commutes. Passengers consigned to the third-row seats enjoy more legroom than their counterparts in other, seven-passenger SUVs in the class.
As for the mechanicals, everything works fine. The V6 returns essentially unchanged, although earning an extra mile per gallon in city and highway driving in the all-wheel-drive configuration according to government (EPA) estimates. The new V8 loses a mile or two per gallon in the rear-wheel-drive Mountaineer, but gains a couple miles per gallon in the all-wheel-drive package. This suggests the AWD versions are even more compelling than last year's.
2006 Mercury Mountaineer Convenience ($29,150); Luxury ($31,150); Premier ($33,300)
For 2006, the trademark waterfall grille returns, only sans the thin border, with free-standing, vertical bars and a robust Mercury emblem front and center. Headlights are unchanged, an offbeat mix of curving lines and sharp angles. The front bumper holds rectangular fog lamps, a sectioned lower air intake and, new for 2006, a satin-finish, aluminum cross bar running the width of the grille. Fenders wear the same, edgy, machined-metal look.
Side view changes only in dimensions, with the wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) shrinking by 0.1 inch from the '05, and overall length (measured bumper to bumper) growing more than two inches. Cladding covers the lower door panels. A wide C-pillar separates the rear side doors from the rear quarter windows. Mercury redesigned the side mirrors for better aerodynamics. The optional powered running board tucks away beneath the rocker panel, extending only when the doors are open. The tires don't change in diameter but the sidewalls are shorter and the diameter of the wheels is larger: The standard 17-inch and optional 18-inch wheels replace the '05's 16-inch and 17-inch wheels respectively.
The liftgate is two-piece, with the glass hinged separately. This lets you load groceries through the window, which is useful.
The taillights wear clear lenses, with the requisite red glow appearing when brakes are applied or running lights turned on.
Instruments have been pared down to the essentials (gone are oil pressure and voltage readouts, leaving speedometer, tachometer, fuel and coolant) and re-organized within a recessed pod surrounded by a satin-finish, metallic ring. It's a less-busy arrangement, but given the Mountaineer's workhorse capabilities, as evidenced by the V8 AWD's three-ton tow rating, we miss the omitted gauges. The dash is cleaner, though, with attractive, low-key, metallic accents.
The stereo and climate controls in the center stack have been updated to accommodate the screen for the optional navigation system, yielding larger, more finger-friendly buttons. The results here are mixed. The stereo and navigation system operate on separate power supplies, so you can have a map displayed without having the stereo on. That's not true of all navigation systems, including those from Mercedes. But sadly, the stereo's tuning function remains buried beneath a sequential rocker switch, forcing you to wait while it scrolls up or down through the frequency band to find any station other than one of the presets. The navigation system screen could be larger, but the information it provided was adequate and accuracy was above average.
The front seats are comfortable, with adequate thigh support and bolsters. Overall, passenger roominess is competitive for the class. The Mountaineer offers comparable headroom in the front seats as the the 2006 GMC Envoy and Nissan Pathfinder, trailing them by less than an inch; front-seat legroom betters the Envoy by an inch and equals the Pathfinder; front-seat hiproom is almost identical.
Second-row headroom and legroom is comparable to the Envoy, but the Mountaineer offers significantly 2.5 inches more legroom than the Pathfinder's second row offers, a noticeable difference. However, the Mountaineer doesn't have nearly as much second-row hiproom as the Envoy and Pathfinder do. The middle-row bench seat has full seatbelts for three but head restraints for only the outboard passengers.
The third-row seats in the Mountaineer are significantly roomier than those in the competition's, with nearly three inches more legroom than Envoy and more than six inches over the the Pathfinder. Headroom and hiproom are comparable. The third row is a bench seat with minimal padding and fixed-height head restraints, which loom large in the back window; they do collapse, but only by tugging a loop hanging out the backside. Much better are the optional third-row seats that can be power-folded via two rocker buttons in the left rear quarter panel, directly below a thoughtfully provided button for the power central locking.
Accessing the third row is a three-step process that doesn't strike us as all that secure. First, you pull a strap that releases the head restraints so they fold forward. Then you pull up on a stiff lever to fold the seatback down on the seat bottom. And then you lift the heavy seat assembly, rocking it forward toward the front seats, where it parks, unrestrained, while people crawl into and out of the third row seats. When I leaned on it while climbing out, it rocked back, almost dropping into place, which would have put it smack on top of my foot.
We like the look of some of the light-colored interiors, though we're concerned it'll get dirty. The light-colored, suede-like inserts attract dirt like a magnet and, once dirtied, are a hassle to spruce up.
The rear-seat entertainment system, controls and all, is housed in a black plastic box suspended from the ceiling and running the width of the roof immediately behind th
The new V8 engine is more powerful than the V8 on 2005 Mountaineers. Though the displacement is the same as before, the new V8 features three valves per cylinder and new electronics, which generates major amounts of added motivation: 53 more horsepower and 18 more pound-feet of torque. Curb weight is up, however, by almost 200 pounds. Torque peaks on the high side, too. This probably explains why we weren't overwhelmed by the response from the V8 when we prodded the accelerator, whether from a stop light or when hoping to take advantage of a long-awaited opening on a crowded two-lane road. The new six-speed automatic transmission compensated somewhat, but not enough to impress.
The V6 engine is the same as last year's, with 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. It comes with a five-speed automatic transmission.
Mercury says the frame is stronger on 2006 models, which combined with a revised front suspension and a new, trailing-link rear suspension should produce a firmer, more controlled ride. Firmer, maybe, but as for more control, we didn't feel it. The 2006 Mountaineer tracks relatively well on level, straight roads, but leans in corners almost as much as the '05. Likewise, when pushed in corners, it plows as readily as any top-heavy SUV. Steering response felt a bit crisper, but we can't say how much this was attributable to changes in the suspension as to the marginally larger footprint from the lower profile tires and the 0.7-inch wider rear track (the distance between the left and right wheels).
The all-wheel drive in the Mountaineer is more for conquering the snowy parking lot at the ski resort and maintaining controlled headway in downpours than for tackling rock-strewn terrain. And by that measure, it's quite competent. In the same vein, it's also just as good as the Envoy, but won't quite keep up with the Pathfinder.
At speed on pavement, there's some wind noise, but not enough to detract in the least from the stereo. Road noise is decently muted.
The Mercury Mountaineer offers a comfortable ride. The 2006 models handle better than the '05s and the Mountaineer feels sure-footed in the mountains. Accommodations are nice overall and the Mountaineer offers lots of utility.
[NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Sacramento, California.]