Lincoln-Mercury shares the same sport-utility vehicle with Ford division, but each has its own mini-van--Mercury, the Villager, and Ford, the Windstar. The only sharing Mercury has to do is with Nissan, which markets a version of Villager called Quest.

When it comes to sport-utes, Ford and Lincoln-Mercury are equals with Explorer and Mountaineer, but when it comes to mini-vans, L-M is the clear winner.

The front-wheel-drive '96 Villager LS we tested offers smoother car-like ride and handling with almost no road harshness in the cabin. It also can takethe merger ramp without backing off the accelerator. It has a lively, but quiet, V-6 with ample power to climb a hill, and it can run long distances without gulping fuel (18 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway from the 3-liter, 151-h.p. V-6).

All that plus dual air bags and anti-lock brakes. Villager comes closest ofany van now on the market to matching the mini-vans from sales champ Chrysler Corp.

Villager falls short of Chrysler, however, in that it only comes in regular-length version (112.2-inch wheelbase, 189.9-inch length) and not extended length (Windstar with its 120.7-inch wheelbase/201.2-inch length is Ford's extended-length van). In addition, it offers but one slide-open door onthe passenger side, not sliders on both passenger and driver side as does Chrysler (or a power slide-open passenger-side door as does General Motors). And while it can hold up to seven passengers, it doesn't have as much room left over as Chrysler mini-vans.

Like Chrysler, Villager has such handy features as a stowage bin under the front passenger's seat, cup/juicebox holders for rear-seat occupants includingone that pops open to reveal a compartment for toys or snacks.

Unlike Chrysler, Villager boasts a third seat in back that slides forward on its track in order to increase cargo capacity without having to remove a heavy seat. It's a great feature, but it needs better execution. You can only slide it forward by pulling levers at the front of the seat, not from the backof the seat.

Why not a lever in back so you need only open the hatch, pull a lever, slide the seat forward, and dispose of your packages?

GM will offer a third seat slider in its newly redesigned front-wheel-drivemini-vans this fall. Hopefully, it will be easier to use.

We tested the '96 Villager LS, which starts at $24,300. In addition to the standard equipment mentioned it offers air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with cassette, power mirrors/windows/door locks, and 15-inch all-season tires. For $3,655 you can add the preferred equipment group with power seats, compact-disc player, heated mirrors, captain's chairs, and a bunch of things labeled deluxe. Add $555 for freight.

Changes for '96 include new front/rear facia and grille and the passenger-side air bag. Keyless entry and an integrated child safety seat are new options.