Many of us fifty-somethings grew up horsing around in factory hot rods such as the Chevy 409 or Ford Starliner. Even some Pontiac Bonnevilles and Oldsmobiles had three carburetors in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Mercury's Marauder is a throwback to vehicles remembered well by those of us riding the leading edge of the baby boom generation: Full-size, rear-wheel sedans powered by whopping V-8s. Ford calls it a "1960s American muscle car experience with contemporary driving dynamics, comfort, safety and low emissions." Others will call it fun.

Basically a four-door Grand Marquis with 80 more horses than a standard Grand Marquis, the Marauder is the heir to the niche vacated by the Chevrolet Impala SS. The 17-inch chrome wheels and a monochrome black exterior are punctuated by the head of the god Mercury on each wheel cap and the Marauder name embossed into the rear bumper. This vehicle seems to be a signal that Mercury wants to reshape its identity as the hip division of Ford Motor Co. The list price is $34,495, and its only options are a $200 trunk organizer and a trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer for $350.

Marauder is a name from Mercury's performance past. It was used on performance versions of the Montclair and Monterey sedans in 1964, and a special racing Marauder won the stock-car class in the 1963 Pike Peak Hill Climb.

Ford's all-aluminum, 4.6-liter, DOHC V-8 has been put on steroids for this application. It breathes through a low-restriction intake, and all 302 horsepower sound ready at the first twist of the key. A low-restriction exhaust system not only sounds proper, but aids performance. This engine is quite lively, but unless you're using a lot of throttle the transmission shifts into high gear too quickly, and that dulls the car's sense of urgency. A manual gearbox would be delightful, but none is available.

Inside, the Marauder is modern and contemporary, with all-black leather bucket seats in front and a bench seat in back. The gauges have white faces and a Marauder logo that lights up at night. The instrument panel is trimmed with a gray, dot-matrix strip instead of wood. A leather-wrapped gearshift for the automatic transmission is mounted on the console, which also contains cupholders and a storage bin. Two auxiliary gauges mounted at the base of the dash add to the muscle-car look, although some of my friends thought they were too much.

The Marauder's suspension has been tightened up considerably, to the point that the back axle felt a little choppy over some of our rougher freeways. When filled with five people, however, the car rode much better and never once bottomed out. There aren't many performance sedans that will hold five people comfortably.

If you like the sedan, you may really like what may come next. Mercury displayed a Marauder convertible concept at the Chicago Auto Show earlier this year. It had a supercharged V-8, 335 horsepower, two doors and seating for five. Mercury says ther e are no firm plans to produce it at this time, but it will if public reaction is strong enough. A full-size convertible would be really unusual these days, but there may be a small market for just such a car. We'll see.

Price
The sticker price of the test car was $34,495.

Warranty
Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: Big-V-8 power in a full-size, rear-wheel-drive sedan harkens back to the 1960s, yet the Marauder has the handling, brakes and comfort of a contemporary car.

Counterpoint: The rear suspension is a bit choppy over some pavement surfaces and the auxiliary gauges at the head of the console appeal to hot rodders but look like an afterthought to those who arenUt gearheads.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 4.6-liter, 302-hp V-8
Transmission: automatic Rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 114.7 inches
Curb weight: 4,165 lbs.
Base price: $34,495
As driven: $34,495
Mpg rating: not avail ble
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