The Mountaineer used to be an Explorer with a different badge, but when both vehicles were redesigned for 2002 it was given a look, and identity, of its own even though both vehicles share the bulk of their parts. Mountaineer now has unique styling, different interior trim and a completely different mission.

Clearly intended to be an urban runabout that is more like a car than a truck, this luxury SUV is slated to compete with the Chevy Trailblazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada, Acura MDX and Toyota Highlander. Although it is available with two-wheel drive and a V-6 engine, the bulk of Mountaineer buyers will want the optional V-8 and full-time all-wheel drive, like the test model driven for this review.

The all-wheel-drive system is not available with a low-gear transfer case so any off-roading more serious than a gravel road is out of the question. Because it has a third seat, it would be ideal for carpooling moms who need seven-passenger seating. Distinct front sheet metal distinguishes the Mountaineer from the Explorer. Body-colored fascias soften the truck look, and body-panel gaps are as tight as a luxury sedan. Clear-lens headlights and a chrome waterfall grille brighten up the front.

Although the overall vehicle is roughly the same size as before, the wheelbase is 2 inches longer and the track is 2.5 inches wider. That results in a bigger interior and enhanced vehicle stability. The 4.6-liter, SOHC V-8 supplies 240 horsepower, and it does so with hardly any vibration. Given the luxury nature of the vehicle, it would be my engine of choice. It accelerates to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds, and on the road it has plenty of power for passing on two-lane highways.

An all-new independent rear suspension, geometrically similar to the Lincoln LS pays dual dividends: both ride and handling have been improved over previous Mountaineers. There is less choppiness on rough pavement and the vehicle takes turns with less body lean. A new frame design was created to fit this suspension into the vehicle. Each rear axle passes through porthole in the frame rail. The frame design also enables the cargo floor to be 7 inches lower than before, which gives room for the folding third seat. Folding third seats are hot items because they enhance the vehicle’s versatility. Fixed anchor points for child safety seats are built into both the second and third row of seats.

Inside, textures and materials are richer, there are fewer seams in the instrument panel and the overall look is upscale. Side-curtain airbags are available for $495. Later in the model year a rollover protection package will be offered. Gauges have silver faces and the instrument panel is accented with brushed aluminum strips instead of woodgrain trim like the Explorer. The radio controls could be better, but redundant buttons on the steering wheel ease the situation considerably. Climate control and cruise can also be operated from the wheel.

The front seats are flatter and have less lateral support than those of the previous model. Ditto for the second seat, which is now a three-section unit whose center section tips forward to create a console/storage bin/drink holder for rear seat passengers. Very handy.

Interior storage is ample, with various cubbies and cupholders throughout. Door map pockets will hold a large water bottle. The center console has a separate power outlet, large storage compartment and multiple drink holders.

Door handles, both inside and out, are large and easy to grip, although the front ones are under the armrest and not the easiest to reach.

The rear liftgate is a two-piece unit with an unusually deep upper section so it is easy to load groceries. I’m fairly short, and found closing the liftgate was hard because it was heavy. This is a vehicle intended for a large female audience, so I’m surprised the liftgate isnÕt easier to close.

Thoughtful touches include small lights in the bottom of the outside irrors create a night puddle of light alongside each door at night when the keyless remote is punched.

Price The base price of the test vehicle was $30,610. Options included the V-8 engine, luxury package, running boards, tow package, reverse parking sensors, upgraded audio system with six-disc CD changer and side-curtain airbags.

The sticker price was $36,905.

Warranty Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point:The Mountaineer is an urban SUV. All-wheel drive, a super smooth V-8 and seating for seven make it a strong contender for those who want an SUV with luxury and style.

Counterpoint The seats don’t have as much lateral support as previous models and the liftgate is heavy, which makes it hard to close.

Engine: 4.6-liter, 240-hp V-8
Transmission: automatic All-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 113.7 inches
Curb weight: 4,405 lbs.
Base price: $30,610
As driven: $36,905
Mpg rating: 14 city, 19 hwy.
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