Newton, MAóDriving the 2002 Mercury Mountaineer didn't evoke images of rutted dirt roads or snow banks. Instead you enjoy an overall feeling of sturdiness, safety, and style in an upscale vehicle obviously targeted primarily for suburban use.
My everyday car is a 1999 Mercury Sable, so I was quite surprised at how fast I forgot I was driving a much larger vehicle. Mountaineer features an improved independent front suspension that replaces a bar arrangement with a new coil-over-shock design. Even more important is the new independent rear-wheel suspension. Combined with steering improvements, including a tighter turning radius, this suspension system makes the car quite easy to handle and contributes to a tight, solid ride.
You don't need to activate four wheel drive. The model I drove had full-time, fully-automatic all wheel drive. If the wheels begin to slip, a viscous coupling unit transfers up to 100% of engine power to the wheels that still have traction.
For greater safety, the vehicle boasts a new side-curtain air bag system that protects first- and second-row passengers during side-impact collisions. Slated for Mountaineers manufactured late in 2001: a new rollover detection system that senses excessive tilt and, if necessary, triggers inflation of the side-curtain airbags.
My family liked the roominess of the Mountaineer. It is 2.5 inches wider than the previous year's model and features a standard two-passenger third row of seats, which fold down in a jiffy for increased cargo. Under the middle seat in the second row, you'll find a handy storage compartment.
You won't confuse the curved, more sweeping styling of the Mountaineer with its boxier cousin, the Explorer. My test vehicle came loaded with such options as heated leather seats, moon roof, running boards, reverse sensing system, and premium sound system. Sticker price: $36,495.
My vehicle was equipped with the new 4.6 liter V-8 engine, which delivers 240 hp and 280 foot pounds of torque. It did not blow me away, which would make me think twice if I needed the Mountaineer for trailering. I also found the transmission to be a bit noisy and sluggish in low gear. Still, the pluses by far outweighed the drawbacks in this gentrified sport ute.