EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

I never really liked “The Patty Duke Show.” The whole of idea of identical cousins seemed stupid. At least when it came to human beings.

When it comes to cars and trucks, it’s a different story.

With four-by-fours going out the door faster than billing records at the White House, one can see why Mercury dealers wanted a sport-utility to match the most popular four-by-four in the country, the Ford Explorer.

Of course, what they got is basically an Explorer with a fancy grille (OK, an identical cousin). The resemblance is so close that I was asked how I liked the new Explorer I was driving. In addition to the grille, the Mountaineer has unique bumpers, side moldings and roof rack.

No matter which grille or name you choose, you’ll get a very refined truck. If you basically use a four-by-four as station wagon, you’ll appreciate the amenities that Mercury has included.

Unlike its Ford cousin, Mercury’s version has a limited selection of options. There’s a base model and an up-level all-wheel drive model. In the latter, under normal operation, 65 percent of engine power is directed toward the rear wheels, the rest to the front. It’s constantly in operation, so there’s no need to shift into and out of four-wheel drive. When things get slippery, a viscous coupling transfers torque to the wheels that are losing traction. It’s all done without fanfare, as would be expected of an upscale Mercury.

The same goes for engine power. Up front is the Mustang’s old V-8, rated here at 210 horsepower and 275 foot-pounds of torque. Press the throttle and the engine roars with that familiar Ford tone. It muscles this truck along with the authority of, well, an Explorer. Unlike the Explorer, a V-8 is standard rather than a V-6.

Safety features include dual airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and fog lamps.

The lack of a low gear on the automatic transmission means this truck is not a serious off-roader, but that won’t matter to most Mercury buyers. The Mountaineer has an optional trailer towing package, uping pulling power from the standard 3,500 pounds to 6,500 pounds with the all-wheel drive, 6,700 pounds with regular drive. Gross cargo weight is 11,000 pounds.

The Mountaineer’s ride is smooth and compliant, very refined for a truck. Bump insulation is good, handling very car-like. The rack-and-pinion steering is quick, although somewhat lacking in feel, but it still gives this Merc a tossable feel. There is some body lean in corners, but no more than a fairly good family car. It’s easy to forget that this is a truck.

The same can be said for the interior. Very rounded and flowing, the inside is about the same as its Ford cousin. That means simple, ergonomic controls. The front bucket seats are very comfortable and supply good lateral support over long drives. The interior is roomy, filled with places to put stuff. The split rear seat folds for cargo-hauling versatility. I nterior options include leather seats, optional integrated child seats and rear-seat radio and climate controls.

The test vehicle driven was a preproduction prototype, so no full price stickers were available. Base price is $27,765 for the regular drive, and $29,765 for the all-wheel drive version. Destination charge is $525.

Of course, all this could be said for the best-selling Ford Explorer. But then, the Explorer doesn’t have big Mercury badges on it.

I wonder if Patty Duke owns one …

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