Call it Mercury's contribution to Ford Motor Co.'s "Year of the Car." That's just one of the roles that the 2005 Mercury Montego sedan is playing in Ford's recovery program, which includes detailed plans for strengthening the ailing Mercury brand.

The Montego, an all-new full-size model that will partially replace the midsize Sable in the Mercury lineup, went on sale this fall positioned as a slightly upscale clone of the Ford Five Hundred sedan. Both are part of Ford's big push back into the car market after years of concentrating on trucks and pretty much ceding the car business to the Japanese.

I say that the Montego will only partially replace the Sable in the Mercury line because another new sedan - the midsize Milan - will debut next year as the direct replacement for the Sable.

But for now, the Montego is available for consumers who want something a bit more modern and upscale - not to mention larger - than the Sable, yet aren't quite ready to move into the even larger yet quite stodgy Grand Marquis.

At first glance, the Montego looked to me to be just a slightly junior-sized version of the Grand Marquis, thanks to the Montego's not-quite-stunning exterior styling. The car has a nice appearance - don't get me wrong - but Ford really isn't breaking new ground here with either the exterior of the Five Hundred or the Montego.

No, these cars aren't quite as bland as the generically styled Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, for instance, but they're not radical, either. I suppose Ford learned its lesson with the dramatic restyling of the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable in 1996, particularly the Taurus, with its futuristic oval rear window.

With that experiment in cutting-edge styling, Ford alienated many of its longtime Taurus and Sable customers, who tended to be older, empty-nest consumers whose tastes are far from extreme. Within a couple of years, the cars had been toned down, but they never recovered from the slump in sales that occurred after the redesign.

So I can't fault Ford for taking a more-conservative approach with the Montego and Five Hundred. But I can tell you after some extensive test-driving of the Montego that there is nothing bland about the car's performance and handling. On some truly twisty roads in the mountains near San Jose, Calif., the Montego took the curves with the grace of a true sport sedan or coupe, quite surprising for a sedan whose back seat offers more passenger room than a new Rolls-Royce.

And after just a few hours with the Montego, the styling even started to grow on me, helped in part by the very nice interior of our Premier model, which included black leather seats, along with woodgrain appearance trim on the center dash stack and instrument panel - not to mention the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter.

Our test car, therefore, came across as quite elegant, a surprise to go along with its superb road manners.

With a price of $28,040 (including freight), our front-wheel-drive Montego Premier also rang up as something of a bargain considering all of the amenities that are included in that price. The car honestly felt like one that would cost in the low- to mid-$30,000s, yet was priced about the same as a Toyota Avalon, one of its closest competitors among the imports.

The exterior styling is punctuated by the now-signature "waterfall grille," as Mercury calls it. The same grille style is being used in newer models throughout the Mercury line, including the also all-new 2005 Mariner, which is a virtual clone of the compact Ford Escape sport utility.

Other nifty exterior design cues include unique headlights and taillights, as well as satin-finish bright-metal trim that helps give the car a look that Mercury rightfully describes as "timeless elegance."

A surprise for passengers in this vehicle, which Mercury calls a "modern-day large car," is the high profile created by its raised roofline. This translates into a higher seating position for front and rear occupants, giving the car more of an SUV feel of looking out over traffic, than having to look straight at it or even worse, look up at it. In the Montego, the driver seems to be looking down at the instrument panel, whereas in most other sedans, the panel is just about straight ahead.

The interior has 107.5 cubic feet of passenger space, which is huge - especially when you consider that the exterior of the car is almost the same size as most of the popular midsize sedans. This is a case where Ford designers, using the Volvo S80 luxury large-car platform, were able to optimize interior space without a correspondingly large increase in exterior dimensions. (Volvo, the Swedish automaker, is now a wholly owned Ford subsidiary.)

The Montego is just 200.9 inches long, with a wheelbase of just 112.9 inches. It stands 61.5 inches tall, and is 74.5 inches wide.

Did I mention the cavernous trunk yet? It measures a whopping 21.2 cubic feet, which is big enough for a mafia don to cram several bodies into. With the rear seat folded (it's a 60-40 split) and the front passenger seat also folded to increase cargo space, an eight-foot ladder can be carried inside the car with the trunk lid closed. Of course, you'd have to leave your passengers at home to do so, but hey, we usually go to Lowe's or Home Depot by ourselves anyway, don't we?

Under the hood of both trim levels of the Montego - base Luxury and uplevel Premier models - is a 3.0-liter V-6 engine that cranks out 203 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque.

In the front-drive Premier model, like our test car, that engine is connected to a six-speed automatic transmission. If you opt for the all-wheel-drive version of the Premier, the gearbox is a chain-driven continuously variable automatic, which also is standard on the Luxury model with front drive. No manual gearbox is offered in either model, at least for now.

Steering is a precise power rack-and-pinion setup, and the brakes are impressive four-wheel discs with antilock and electronic brake-force distribution standard. Luxury models come with painted-aluminum 17-inch wheels, but the Premier gets impressive-looking 15-spoke, 18-inch bright-aluminum wheels.

Other standard equipment on Luxury Montegos includes six-way power adjustable driver's seat, high-intensity-discharge automatic headlights, heated power side mirrors, power windows and (automatic) door locks with remote and keypad entry, fog lights, dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, tilt steering column, premium AM/FM/single-compact-disc audio system (with steering wheel audio controls), solar-tinted glass, auto-dimming rearview mirror, all-speed traction control, electronic message center, and an overhead console with sunglasses storage.

Extras that come on the Premier model include the six-speed automatic gearbox, perforated leather seating surfaces, heated front passenger seat, an Audiophile stereo with rear subwoofer and six-disc in-dash CD changer (with MP3 playback), eight-way power driver and four-way power passenger seats, memory function for mirrors and seats, and a universal garage-gate opener.

Available options include the all-wheel drive, power adjustable foot pedals with memory, power moon roof, reverse-sensing system, and side-impact air bags with rollover safety canopy package (carried over from the Volvo S80).

Our test car came with the adjustable foot pedals, a nice feature that helps short-legged people keep a safe distance from the steering-wheel-mounted air bag. We also had the reverse-sensing system, which uses sonar to warn the driver that the car is approaching a stationary object while backing up.

Because the Montego's chassis and body structure are basically borrowed from the Volvo S80, the car comes with the same crash-safety engineering features found on the Volvo, which have made that car one of the safest on the road.

Fuel economy ratings for our test car, with front drive and the six-speed transmission, were 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, quite impressive for a car this large.

With all-wheel drive and the continuously variable transmission, those ratings are 19 mpg city/26 highway.

The tank holds 19 gallons of fuel, and unleaded regular is acceptable.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236;

2005 Mercury Montego The package: Full-size, four-door, five-passenger, front- or all-wheel-drive, V-6 powered sedan. Highlights: All new for 2005, this is the Mercury version of the new large sedan platform from Ford Motor Co. It's also sold as the Ford Five Hundred. Derived from the chassis of the luxury Volvo S80, the Montego/Five Hundred offer a roomy interior, a host of regular and optional features, and a cavernous trunk. Trim levels include the base Luxury model and the uplevel Premier version. Negatives: No engine upgrade available for sportier performance. Engine: 3.0-liter V-6. Transmission: Six-speed automatic standard on Premier model; continuously variable automatic standard on Luxury model and all-wheel-drive versions. Power/torque: 203 hp./207 foot-pounds. Length: 200.9 inches. Curb weight: 3,680 (front drive); 3,930 (all-wheel drive). Trunk capacity: 21.2 cubic feet. Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock and electronic brake-force distribution standard. Fuel capacity/type: 19.0 gallons/unleaded regular. EPA fuel economy: 21 miles per gallon city/29 highway (front drive); 19 city/26 highway (all-wheel drive). Major competitors: Toyota Avalon, Buick LeSabre, Pontiac Grand Prix, Chrysler 300, Chevrolet Impala, Hyundai XG350, Kia Amanti. Base price: $24,995 (Front-drive Luxury model, with freight); $26,695 (All-wheel-drive Luxury model); $27,195 (Premier model with front drive, including freight); $28,895 (all-wheel drive). Price as tested: $28,040 Premier front-wheel-drive model with freight and options, including safety package ($595) and reverse-sensing system ($250). On the Road rating: **** (four stars out of five).

Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail. Actual selling price may vary according to manufacturer and/or dealer rebates, incentives and discounts, if any.