Minivan shoppers used to have a real choice between Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealerships -- the standard-size Ford Windstar or the more petite Mercury Villager, which shared its underpinnings and most of its sheet metal with the old Nissan Quest.

After the Mercury-Nissan partnership dissolved, the Japanese automaker created a larger, more radical update of the Quest, rolling out its edgy design earlier this year. Mercury took exactly the opposite tack, borrowing heavily from the face-lifted Ford Windstar -- rechristened Freestar for 2004 -- as it launched a brand-new and relatively conservative offering, the 2004 Monterey.

We recently tested a well-equipped Monterey Premier, priced at $35,795.

SHE: I was amused to see a group called the Minivan Moms marching in our local Thanksgiving parade. They were carrying steering wheels and chanting, "We drive all day, but we don't go far." The key question with the new Monterey is, will it make the Minivan Moms happy? I think it will.

HE: Well, if they were looking for more space in a very minimalist package, they should be pleased. The new Monterey is virtually a clone of the Freestar, except for the front end, which has that sheer and elegant new Mercury face that's going to begin appearing on other Mercury products in the coming year. Other than that, I get the impression that when it created the Monterey, Ford didn't go far.

SHE: Wow. I gave you an opening and you drove right through it. In defense of the Monterey, minimalist is not a dirty word to a Minivan Mom. The confusion and the clutter inside the new Quest practically drove me crazy, as it did many other women I've talked to. Now that I think about it, the Monterey reminds me of a square juice box -- simply designed and constructed, and perfectly brilliant. But don't get the impression that the Monterey is a mere appliance. The fancy Premier model that we drove had heated and cooled seats with perforated-leather upholstery, two-tone interior trim and a beautiful instrument panel with backlit gauges.

HE: That cabin looked more plain Jane than plush to me. The Monterey doesn't have nearly the presence or personality of the new Toyota Sienna, inside or out. And it certainly doesn't feel as agile or responsive. Ford installed a new 4.2-liter V-6 in the Monterey, but it doesn't seem nearly as lively as the 3.8-liter V-6 in last year's Windstar. And it only returns a mediocre 16 miles per gallon in city driving. The ride quality is OK, but the Monterey feels heavy and handles like a barge. We also had a problem with the brakes, which didn't respond well to progressive pedal pressure. You really had to stand on them to feel adequate stopping power.

SHE: But when it comes to safety features, the Monterey Premier has just about everything. Antilock brakes and traction control are standard, so you don't have to worry about the brakes locking up or the wheels spinning on slippery pavement . Side air bags and side curtains are standard, along with adjustable pedals and front and rear parking-assist controls that warn you of obstacles when you're parking. And our test vehicle was equipped with optional $195 self-sealing tires, another security feature that will appeal to moms.

HE: The safety features are pretty good, although for this kind of money, I'd also like to see stability control, which helps keep a vehicle this size from fishtailing on wet or icy roads. I'm glad Ford finally figured out how to install a third-row bench seat that folds flat into the floor -- a feature that Honda pioneered years ago on the Odyssey.

SHE: One thing that took away from the otherwise precise look and feel of the cabin was the odd front door design. The windows roll down below the edge of the inside door trim panels, and it looks like you could easily trap French fries, dirt and other stuff there. I'm also disappointed that you can't order features like a navigation system or a power liftgate, like some of the competitors offer. Another item on the gripe list -- the second-row windows don't roll down.

HE: If I were a kid, I don't think I'd want to spend much time in either the second or third row, which is really cramped. But then, I'm probably your typical minivan dad -- can't stand to drive `em or ride in `em unless I really have to.

SHE: To tell the truth, if I were spending nearly $36,000 and didn't need the flexibility of a third-row seat, I'd prefer to drive a Lexus RX 330. But if you need a minivan and want to buy a domestic product, the new Monterey should be near the top of your shopping list.

2004 Mercury Monterey Premier

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, seven-passenger minivan

Price (Includes $685 destination charge): Base, $34,840; as tested, $35,795

Engine: 4.2-liter V-6; 201-hp; 263 lb-ft torque

EPA fuel economy: 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway

Key competitors: Chevrolet Venture, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan, Ford Freestar, Honda Odyssey, Mazda MPV, Nissan Quest, Pontiac Montana, Toyota Sienna, Volkswagen EuroVan

12-month insurance cost (estimated by AAA Michigan. Rates may vary depending on coverage and driving record): $1,377

Where built: Greer, S.C.

Paul's Rating: Acceptable

Likes: Front and rear parking assist. Larger, more substantial than old Villager minivan. Third-row bench seat folds flat into floor. Front-end design looks elegant.

Dislikes: Doesn't look like a $36,000 vehicle inside. Feels heavy and ponderous. New 4.2L V-6 is sluggish. Handles like a barge. Gaps in rubber moldings around insides of doors. Third-row seating is cramped.

Anita's rating: Above Average

Likes: Simplicity of cabin. Brilliant design -- like a square juice box. Heated/cooled front seats. Nice perforated-leather upholstery. Optional self-sealing tires. Great standard safety features.

Dislikes: Low front windows drop down below inside door panel. Brakes not responsive to pedal pressure. For the money, rather have a Lexus RX 330. Second-row windows don't roll down.