2003 Mercury Mountaineer
    MSRP
    $34,935
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    2003 Mercury Mountaineer Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    Refined, convenient and comfortable.

    Introduction

    Mercury Mountaineer presents a bold, expressive design. Its innovative chassis and suspension offer a smooth ride. Completely re-engineered for 2002, Mountaineer boasts a new frame, a new independent rear suspension, a new front suspension, new steering, new seating formats, and a raft of new standard and optional features. 

    Mechanically, the Mountaineer shares its structure and most of its major components with the Ford Explorer. It's the Mountaineer's adventurous, architectural look that sets it apart. While the Explorer almost seems designed to blend into the suburban wallpaper, the Mountaineer demands more attention. It points the way to Mercury's future, while paying homage to Mercury's heritage of styling innovation. 

    For 2003, the Mountaineer offers more standard equipment, most notably power adjustable pedals, automatic headlamps, and dual heated mirrors. The Premier Package now includes a power moonroof and Safety Canopy airbags. The 2003 Mountaineer offers new options as well, including a DVD entertainment center. 

    Lineup

    Mercury Mountaineer comes in two models: two-wheel drive ($29,235) and four-wheel drive ($31,235). Each is available with a 4.0-liter V6 or a 4.6-liter V8 ($800). 

    All Mountaineers come with a wide-ratio five-speed automatic transmission. All have seating for seven, using a third seat that folds completely flat to make room at the rear for large cargo. 

    All Mountaineers are built to a relatively high specification, with power windows, mirrors and locks, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, and a Class II receiver hitch for towing. All have the SecuriLock passive anti-theft system and remote keyless entry, and approach lamps on the bottoms of the side mirrors that illuminate the sides of the vehicle when the key fob button is pressed. Power adjustable pedals are now standard as well. A standard battery saver turns off the dome light and approach lamps after five minutes. P245/70 tires are mounted on 16-inch machined aluminum wheels. 

    The Luxury Preferred Equipment Package ($2670) adds leather upholstery, heated front seats, power for the passenger seat, memory for the driver's seat and pedals a message center, dual automatic temperature control, audiophile stereo with a six-CD changer, steering-wheel mounted climate and audio controls, electrochromic heated mirrors, painted running boards and 245/65R17 all-terrain tires. 

    The Premier Package ($4570) includes all that, plus a monochromatic exterior with satin aluminum trim, Safety Canopy air bags, a reverse-sensing system and a power moonroof. The moonroof is available as a stand-alone option ($800). 

    The rear seat entertainment system ($1100) is a new option for 2003 that includes an overhead DVD player and a pull-down seven-inch color screen. The system comes with two wireless headphones, remote control and a universal jack. 

    Walkaround

    Mercury Mountaineer's expressive design is refreshing in a sea of comparatively faceless SUVs. If a seven-passenger sport utility can be pretty or even beautiful, this is the one. 

    The Mercury Mountaineer grew larger last year (model-year 2002), to accommodate both the third seat and the new independent rear suspension system. It is a brawny beast, its size tempered by its waterfall grille design, multi-element headlamps, and lots of matte aluminum exterior trim, including horizontal cages around the taillamp assemblies. 

    Our test vehicle was painted in a Mineral Grey clearcoat metallic, with a light gray lower accent panel and a matte black roof rack, very pleasing to our eye, and enhancing its postmodern industrial design. The exterior graphics are all straightforward, businesslike block letters. That the Mountaineer is attractive is a good thing because it is expected to represent the design direction Mercury is taking with its future products. 

    We especially liked the big over-or-under door handles than can be operated easily with gloved hands. Many manufacturers use small lever-style handles that sometimes snap away from your fingers when you're in a hurry. Optional running boards are convenient for passengers of small stature trying to enter and exit gracefully. 

    Interior

    Mountaineer uses trendy matte-aluminum trim on the door panels, steering wheel, instrument panel and dashboard and it looks terrific. The aluminum trim extends to the main gauges, the tachometer and speedometer, which are done in black-on-white graphics that turn orange-and-white when the lights are on. The thick steering wheel makes you feel like you're in full command of the ship. 

    Ford is one of the best companies in the world at interior ergonomics, and the Mercury Mountaineer features switches, buttons and levers that are large, well marked and easy to use. It takes only a couple of rides to be able to find everything quickly and easily. The center console is enormous, with lots of space for your stuff, and houses ventilation and storage for second-row passengers as well as an extra 12-volt socket for whatever you need to power. 

    The front bucket seats are very good: long, thick and comfortable. Optional seat heaters warm the seats quickly, but the buttons are mounted on the side of the seat and can be difficult to find, as they are grouped with the seatback recliner handle, the power seat switch for fore/aft and the lumbar pump switch. 

    Third-row seats are a bit cramped for 6-foot, 4-inch testers, but the second row is accommodating. 

    The second and third row seats are very easy to stow. Folding them away reveals a huge 81 cubic-foot cargo bay. The seats are easy to restore to their upright and locked positions. 

    Driving Impression

    The 2003 Mercury Mountaineer hovers near the top of the class of mid-size SUVs. Its refined ride is partly a result of its independent rear suspension, a key aspect of the complete re-engineering the Mountaineer received for 2002. 

    The 4.6-liter V8 has a lovely intake roar at full throttle, yet is supremely smooth and quiet. It works well with the five-speed automatic transmission to move this 4500-pound machine effortlessly over flat territory. As the transmission settles into fifth-gear overdrive at highway cruising speed, the tachometer drops well below 2000 rpm, and the engine is just there, in the background, working noiselessly until you downshift with the tip of your toe. Throttle response lacks some verve in hilly terrain. Here it's best to lock out the overdrive fifth, and let the engine rev a little higher in fourth on the way up a long hill. Hook up a trailer and you'll know it's back there when you head up a long grade. 

    The V6 delivers performance that's quite respectable. You can hear and feel the V6 under full throttle acceleration, and it isn't as smooth as Toyota's V6, but it is entirely within acceptable bounds. Unless you're towing or live at high altitude, you're not likely to need the V8. The 4.0-liter V6 with overhead cams and aluminum heads was revised last year with a new intake system for increased performance and aluminum main bearings for improved durability. It is rated at 210 horsepower and 254 pounds-feet of torque at 3700 rpm. 

    A sophisticated all-wheel-drive system is available with either engine and differentiates the Mountaineer with the Ford Explorer. All-wheel drive contributes to the Mountaineer's handling characteristics because it sends torque to the front and rear tires during normal operation. The Mountaineer's system biases torque 35 percent to the front and 65 percent to the rear to minimize understeer. (Understeer is when the front tires slip before the rear tires, causing the vehicle to push toward the outside of a turn.) It relies on an open differential with a viscous coupling. A clutch pack distributes power between the front and rear wheels based on traction needs. There are no switches or levers the driver needs to operate. There's no low range for serious off-road driving, but the Mountaineer's system easily handles snow, rain, mud, wet leaves, ice, and gravel. 

    Mountaineer's rigid frame lets its fully independent suspension soak up bumps, potholes and tar strips. As a bonus, the independent rear suspension makes room for a bigger, flatter load floor and the third seat. 

    Body roll, or lean, is controlled well in fast corners. The all-wheel-drive system lets you hammer the throttle whenever you want without wheelspin, even in the middle of a turn. It's very stable and inspires confidence. Mountaineer's rack-and-pinion steering minimizes wandering on the highway. 

    Summary

    Mercury Mountaineer combines convenience and versatility with luxurious accommodations. It's comfortable on long trips. Its features and ergonomics make living with it a very pleasant experience. Its available all-wheel-drive system makes it a confident vehicle in nasty weather. The V6 engine is more than adequate for most families, but the V8 gives it more power for hilly terrain, high altitudes, and towing. 

    Model Lineup

    2WD ($29,235); AWD ($31,265). 

    Assembled In

    Louisville, Kentucky; St. Louis, Missouri. 

    Options As Tested

    Security Group ($795) includes side-curtain airbags with rollover sensor, reverse sensing system; Luxury Group ($3470) includes V8 engine, leather-trimmed bucket seats, heated front seats, memory driver's seat, power passenger seat, memory adjustable pedals, audiophile sound system with six-CD changer, steering-wheel-mounted audio and climate controls, message center, dual automatic temperature control, electrochromic heated mirrors, Homelink universal garage-door opener, color-keyed running boards, machined aluminum wheels, P245/65R17 all-terrain tires; Upgraded Trailer Towing Package ($400). 

    Model Tested

    Mercury Mountaineer AWD ($31,265). 

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    Read 2003 Mercury Mountaineer 4.6L V8 Premier 4x2 reviews from auto industry experts to gain insight on the Mercury Mountaineer's drivability, comfort, power and performance.
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