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2006 Mercury Mountaineer

      Until now, it’s been easy to compare the Mercury Mountaineer to its near-identical twin, the Ford Explorer.
     Mercury’s new 2006 Mountaineer, though, would make a better comparison with the bigger Lincoln Navigator.
     The Mountaineer is still based on the same platform as the Explorer. It looks pretty much like the Explorer, has the same amount of space as the Explorer and is even assembled in the same factories as the Explorer — Louisville, Ky. and St. Louis, Mo.
     Despite the similarities, the Mountaineer feels like it’s moved into a new class well above its blue-collar counterpart at Ford. It’s like a Harvard Law School graduate who came from a family of plumbers.
     There are lots of little reasons for the Mountaineer’s sudden Lincoln-like qualities, but they all add up to an overall sense of refinement and sophistication. It’s a great feeling that’s often found in luxury imports from Japan and Europe but less so in products of recent vintage from Ford Motor Co. — except for very expensive vehicles like the Navigator.
     To bring the Mountaineer closer to the Navigator’s level of style and comfort, Mercury created an all-new interior, added some gee-whiz options, tweaked the exterior styling and strengthened the chassis for a smoother, quieter ride. It’s a huge improvement.
     While the exterior is still nothing to brag about — it’s boxy and Explorer-esque with a few Mercury touches — the interior is a work of art. Contrasting, two-tone seats and a stylish dash covered with soft-touch materials make it feel perfect for driving to an upscale shopping mall, not tacky or cheap in the slightest.
     The door release handles are especially noteworthy because of their unique design. They’re shaped to match the contour of a person’s hand, making their unorthodox operation feel natural and fluid as you lift it up by rotating your wrist backward. That may sound awkward, but trust me. It’s really cool.


     On the downside, those same nifty door handles mean the door pull has to be several inches lower than you’d normally find it. That makes shutting the door a little more difficult when you’re seated, especially for shorter people who need to raise the seat up high.
     For buyers who can afford the gas and need the towing power, a new V8 engine is a fantastic choice. It offers 292 horsepower and, when mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, feels smooth as a kitten.
     Other refinements include better steering, ride, handling and braking, including a stronger frame and all-new suspension in the rear.
     In the luxury department, several new options move the Mountaineer closer to full-scale opulence. A DVD-based navigation system is available for the first time in a Mountaineer, and a rear-seat DVD player is a good feature for families.
     A power deployable running board is another attention grabber, as it moves a metal step downward for convenience when you open the door. After you close the door, it neatly tucks away underneath the vehicle for a clean, uncluttered look.
     The Mountaineer starts at $29,795 for a V6 model with an automatic transmission or $35,195 with a V8. That’s about $2,000 more than the base Explorer but, perhaps more importantly, $20,000 less than the Navigator.


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