The look may be essentially unchanged, but the 2006 Mercury Mountaineer has much that is new under its skin. With a stylish new interior, refined ride and handling and a silky new V-8 engine, the midsize SUV raises the bar for midsize luxury sport utility vehicles.

Mountaineer rings another positive note for Ford's Mercury division. Not too long ago, things looked grim for Mercury, which was fading from the public eye under an onslaught of attractive imports. The pundits were shaking their heads and forecasting that Mercury would disappear along with other such venerable U.S. brands as Oldsmobile and Plymouth.

But Mercury designers and engineers cooked up some decent fare in recent years, taking standard Ford models and making them both distinctive and appealing. Mountaineer, based on the Explorer, was the first out of the box in 2001 with a look that defined the upscale division and helped re-establish the brand.

Other new models, such as the handsome and successful Milan based on the Ford Fusion sedan, have put Mercury back on the map.

Carlike crossover SUVs may be all the rage, but Mountaineer proves that trucklike, full-frame models can boast the same measure of style and drivability. The Mercury's sophisticated suspension system and all-wheel drive challenge the crossovers' maneuverability, while the strikingly modern interior is classy and comfortable.

Mountaineer targets women with its refinement and family-friendly accommodations, but the SUV also should appeal to men who appreciate its versatile capabilities.

PERFORMANCE: Equipped with a powered-up 4.6-liter V-8 and six-speed automatic, the test Mountaineer felt strong and capable, accelerating briskly and cruising seamlessly.

The three-valve, double-overhead-cam engine churns 292 horsepower, compared with 239 for the former V-8.

But this is a thirsty beast, delivering just 14 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway, according to the EPA.

Vehicle type: Seven-passenger, four-door sport utility, all-wheel drive.

Engine: 4.6-liter V-8, 292-horsepower at 5,750 rpm, 300 pound-feet torque at 4,750 rpm.

Transmission: 6-speed automatic.

Wheelbase: 113.7 inches.

Overall length: 193.5 inches.

Curb weight: 4,742 inches.

Towing: 6,980 pounds.

EPA rating: 14 city, 20 highway.

Highs: Refined drivability, classy interior, luxury features.

Lows: Paltry gas mileage, boxy styling, pricey with options.

Pricing

Base price: $35,500.

Price as tested: $40,505.

OPTIONS

DVD navigation system, $1,995.

DVD rear-seat entertainment, $1,295.

Power running boards, $695.

Power adjustable pedals, $225.

Trailer towing package, $150.

Shipping, $645.