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Instant Confidence

Tow Test: Mercury Mountaineer

February 1, 2002
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Shopping for a new tow vehicle? Does the name Mercury rise to the top of your list? Probably not. But the new Mercury Mountaineer finally warrants a blip on every boat tower’s radar screen. The best news is that the Mountaineer is no longer a Ford Explorer in disguise. Now it sports its own exterior design-purposely overstated to separate it from the multitude of midsize SUVs (more than 30 contenders and counting). Furthermore, Ford engineers have cooked up a couple of special features that the Explorer doesn’t receive.

To outfit a Mountaineer for towing duty, you need the most potent engine-in this case a 240-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 that’s smooth riding and reasonably fuel efficient. You’ll also opt for the tow-package box that includes a Class III/IV frame-mounted hitch, an engine-oil cooler, a 3.73:1 limited-slip rear axle, and the wiring for trailer lights. It costs $395 and provides a tow capacity of 7,000 pounds with the all-wheel-drive option ($1,980) or 7,300 pounds if you go for the standard rear-wheel drive.

Obviously, all-wheel drive adds traction, but that’s not the only reason to upgrade. If you do, you’ll get most of it back at trade-in time. Plus, it’s a highly sophisticated system that provides torque to all four corners all the time. There are no buttons to push or levers to throw.

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The new Mountaineer drives and handles markedly better than its predecessor. The frame is 3 1/2 times more resistant to twisting. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is dead accurate and almost sports-car responsive. The new all-coil-spring suspension hardware isn’t quite as plush as other midsize SUVs, but the maneuverability is exemplary. This truck doesn’t float when unladen or hop and skip over rippled pavement the way many competitors do. The new independent rear suspension is so compact that the cargo hold is now large enough to accommodate a standard third-row seat for kids.

Hitched up to a 26′ offshore sportboat riding on a tandem-axle trailer, the Mountaineer had no difficulty muscling its 4,840-pound payload into submission. The loaded run to 60 mph took only 17.6 seconds, thanks to this SUV’s overhead-cam V-8 aided and abetted by a five-speed automatic transmission. During the critical one-two shift, only a few hundred rpm are sacrificed, so there’s no waiting for the engine to hit the sweet spot of its operating range. Likewise, kickdowns for passing maneuvers are swift and effective. At the launch ramp, several trips out of the water to wet down the surface failed to trip the Mountaineer’s traction control. Nail the throttle and this vehicle’s combination of center and rear limited-slip differentials works as promised to keep the fat Goodyear Eagles gripping instead of slipping.

MODEL MERCURY MOUNTAINEER
Engine 4.6-liter SOHC V-8
Net hp/rpm 240/4750
Net torque (ft-lb/rpm) 280/4000
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Suspension Front control arms, coil springs
Suspension Rear control arms, coil springs
Brakes (front/rear) vented disc/disc; standard 4-wheel ABS
Tires Goodyear Eagle LS, P245/70SR-16
Wheelbase (in.) 113.7
Length (in.) 190.7
Width (in.) 72.1
Height (in.) 71.1
Curb weight (lbs.) 4,700
Towing capacity (lbs.) 7,000
Cargo capacity (max. cu. ft.) 81
Fuel capacity (gal.) 22.5
0-60 mph acceleration (without/with 4,840-lb. towed load, sec.) 8.6/17.6
60-0 mph stopping distance(without/ with 4,840-lb. towed load, ft.) 132/538
Observed towing fuel economy (mpg. avg.) 9
Price (as tested) $36,905

LAST WORD. The Mercury Mountaineer’s striking appearance, advanced engineering features, and good-natured driving personality help it climb the midsize SUV range’s heavenly peaks.

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