Versus the competiton:
While Mercury’s Sable may linger in the shadow of Ford’s more popular Taurus, price and equipment changes for 1998 enhance its attractiveness. The Sable LS is $1,610 less than a comparably equipped 1997.
Competition in the mid-size sedan segment has gotten tougher with the introduction of the totally restyled Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde, not to mention the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
In response to consumer research, Ford’s merchandising strategy for 1998 offers higher levels of standard equipment, fewer models and more free-standing options.
Our test car was a Sable LS with the Premium group. Its base price of $20,995 included the dual-overhead-cam, 24-valve Duratec V6 engine as well as power windows and locks, air conditioning and automatic transmission. In other words, you get more for your money and the ability to choose options individually as you want.
The Sable is a near clone of the Taurus. Both share the same 108.5-inch wheelbase, mechanical components and basic body shell. It differs with a chrome-trimmed grille and less radical rear styling. The back window is rectangular instead of oval, and the trunk has a more traditional shape. Folks who think the Taurus’ symphony of oval shapes is a bit contrived are likely to find the Sable more appealing.
From a driving perspective, the two cars are nearly identical. The 200-horsepower Duratec engine is smoother and more powerful than the base 145-horse Vulcan engine. With twin cams and four valves per cylinder, the Duratec is not only energetic but also has very little vibration, with the exception of full throttle, where there is a hint of coarseness.
Front-wheel drive is the configuration of choice for most family sedans, and the Sable follows suit. Power goes to the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transaxle, an electronically controlled unit that has an “overdrive off” button on the gear shift lever for extra power at the touch of a thumb.
This driver friendliness is typical of the Sable, which goes about its business in an unhurried way. The interior is reasonably spacious, with decent legroom in the back seat and a good-sized trunk. Front-seat passengers may find the console a bit intrusive, but that is overshadowed by its handiness. Bucket seats are shaped to provide support to a wide range of body sizes, and the optional leather upholstery was most pleasant.
Changes to the interior for 1998 include small nets along the bottom of the front door for maps and other such items. These nets are essential because the doors do not have storage pockets. The trim surrounding the highly legible instruments has a wood-grain finish that is unconvincing and out of place with the rest of the interior’s color scheme. Wood trim is very stylish, but it needs to be placed throughout the interior instead of in just one place.
Ford’s unique Integrated Control Panel (ICP) for heating/cooling and audio system has a futuris tic look that doesn’t age as well as a more traditional design, but its function is first rate. Everything you need to change radio stations or adjust the temperature falls within a few inches of your right hand.
The Sable’s independent suspension is tuned to provide a plush ride while providing a good feel for the road. Body roll is moderate in turns, and the ride was considerably smoother than the Taurus wagon I drove recently, mostly because the Taurus wagon had a heavy duty suspension in anticipation of carrying heavy loads.
The Sable’s speed-sensitive power steering feels a little numb on center, but otherwise it is good.
In the way of safety, the Sable has second-generation airbags that use a single sensor, side-impact beams and 5-mph bumpers. Anti-lock brakes are a stand-along option, and worth $600.
The base price of our test car was $20,995. Options included anti-lock brakes, chrome wheels, leather upholstery, compact disc player and daytim running lights.
The sticker price was $24,660.
The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles, including 24-hour roadside assistance.
Vehicles for The Star’s week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.
Point: The Sable is more conservatively styled than the Taurus, although they share numerous body parts and mechanical components. It rides smoothly and the Duratec engine is powerful.
Counterpoint: The wood-trim around the instruments looks out of place with the rest of the interior.
ENGINE: 3.0-liter, V6
WHEELBASE: 108.5 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,299 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $20,445
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $24,660
MPG RATING: 18 city, 27 hwy.