The Morning Call and's view

For too many car-buyers, the name Mercury isn’t on the radar.

Maybe that’s because of the lack of new vehicles at the dawn of the new century, as well as a lack of marketing, perpetrated by Ford management at the time.

Thankfully, the marque is being revived, with a host of fresh cars and trucks introduced in 2005 and continuing into this year.

I wasn’t expecting to be surprised or enthralled with the 2006 Mercury Mountaineer.

It doesn’t look radically different from what has come before, and it’s mechanically identical to the Ford Explorer. But once behind the wheel, that perception changed.

That’s because Ford Explorer’s upscale sibling receives some minor upgrades that significantly improve the vehicle.

Start with a revised rear suspension.

Most truck-based SUVs don’t employ a fully independent suspension, that allows one wheel to move without disturbing the others.

The Mountaineer has since 2002, and for 2006 it’s been revised to reduce impact harshness.

The front suspension has seen revisions as well, and Ford has stiffened the Mountaineer’s frame. The result is evident from the first time you cross a patch of bad pavement. The ride is stiff, but not harsh.

The body doesn’t rock like hobby horse or bounce around like a drunkard after a bender.

Ride motions are well-dampened, and those crater-sized potholes are easily absorbed.

This gives the Mountaineer a very refined feel.

The improved suspension enhances the newfound power of the optional single-overhead-cam 4.6-liter V-8. (A 4-liter V-6 with a five-speed automatic comes standard.)

This silky smooth powerplant delivers steady surge of power through a responsive six-speed automatic transmission and fuss-free all-wheel-drive.

The Mountaineer’s drive-train is world-class in its mix of manners and muscle, that mates nicely with the refined suspension. It’s almost as smooth as many car-based SUVs.

Actually, the Mountaineer was able to keep up with a fast-moving Saab sedan down one of my favorite country roads, matching the small Swede sedan for speed and pace; it was an impressive performance.

That might be news enough, but Mercury has gone a step further, endowing its SUV with sophisticated design and a couple of neat features.

Let’s start with that last part first.

The new Merc has power-deploying running boards, something first seen on the Lincoln Navigator.

It’s perfect for the height challenged and lends the vehicle a feeling of indulgence in a way that fixed running boards never could.

Open the front door, it pops down. Close it, it retracts. Open the rear door, it pops down, close the rear door, it retracts. I was waiting for it to break, which of course, didn’t happen.

The Merc also has power-folding third-row seats, which is so convenient, one wonders why more auto makers don’t offer such a feature.

When all of the seats are folded, the 13.6 cubic foot cargo area becomes a cavernous 82.8 cubic feet.

Those are just two small examples of the redesigned interior, which would look chic in the finest designer boutiques.

The new look uses Mercury’s black-and-white scheme, accented in metallic trim for an amazingly upscale, post-modern feel. This includes truly cool door handles, which are contoured into the end of the comfortable arm rest.

The center stack houses the ubiquitous GPS navigation system and media controls, including AM/FM/CD and rear-seat DVD player.

Seat comfort was long-ride comfortable, with great support.

Overall, this Mountaineer is among the finest SUVs you can buy at any price, being surprisingly nimble as well as sophisticated in both equipment and style.

While this SUV may look like its predecessors, it’s far superior and is among the best choices in an SUV, foreign or domestic.

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