It Might be a Suburban Taxi, but it's a Pretty Good Suburban Taxi
Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Let's just pretend that, while lazily picking the lint between your toes, you had a sudden and intense flash of clairvoyance. This flash, oh so brief, informed you of two things: 1) the SUV in your driveway is nothing more than an oversized, gas-guzzling pig with an overly zealous desire to roll over, and 2) Peter Jennings isn't a Canadian at all, but an alien from outer space who just happens to know a lot about world affairs.
Now, there isn't much Edmunds.com can do about Mr. Jennings being an alien (other than to keep spreading the word, hoping that Petey will eventually fess up), but we can offer guidance about your SUV. Well, assuming you have one. But even if you don't, you might as well keep reading. What else do you have to do?
Station wagons have gotten a really bad rap the last 10 years. Well, actually, they have never really gotten a good rap. But still, in terms of economical and utilitarian transport, it doesn't get much better than a wagon. People who own SUVs complain about the poor fuel mileage and how they wish their truck would handle more like a car. If these people (and yourself possibly included) could just get over the nerdy stigma of a station wagon, we could solve their vehicle woes, and simultaneously make the world a better place to live.
In fact, it's quite possible that wagons are already on the rebound. Luxury wagons, in particular, are selling quite well. BMW has introduced a new 3 Series wagon for 2000, and sales of Volvos and Saabs are healthy. But on the more mundane and affordable side of things, wagon pickings are still pretty slim. Japanese manufacturers ditched their slow-selling sedan-based wagons eons ago. If you want an affordable midsize station wagon, you will end up with one of five possible choices: the Ford Taurus, the Mercury Sable, the Saturn LS, the Subaru Legacy or the Volkswagen Passat. As you might have guessed, we're here to talk about the Mercury Sable Wagon. (If you guessed that we are here to talk about foot fetishes, you would be wrong.)
We last tested a Sable Wagon in 1996. It was a fairly competent vehicle, though we weren't exactly fond of the styling. In fact, we said, "The designers of the 1996 Mercury Sable Wagon should receive an honorary degree in marine biology. Their assignment was to improve a high-volume American station wagon. Instead they developed a driveable carp The Sable probably wouldn't taste good with a little lemon and butter, but it sure looks like it might."
Ouch. Now, the 2000 Sable Wagon will never be mistaken for anything remotely sexy. Even a frat boy with a major set of beer goggles would be hard pressed to find the Sable attractive. However, we must say that the Sable's looks are vastly improved. Most of the credit goes to the car's moderate 2000-model-year redo. As with the Sable's sibling, the Ford Taurus, the exterior styling has taken up angles instead of ovals. Looking at the new headlights is perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference between a '99 car and a 2000. If you want to catch the Sable Wagon in its most unflattering view, do it from the rear. There are ways to make a sedan-based wagon's rear end look attractive, but Mercury has not invoked any of those styling methods here. Like many overweight Americans, the Sable's butt is just too big.
If you overlook that point, however, you will realize that the bulbous rear does contain a rather convenient cargo hold. SUV owners are quite proud about how their vehicles can haul lots of stuff, but the Sable Wagon can butt heads with a midsize SUV in cargo capacity, or even best it in certain cases. With the rear seats upright, the Sable can hold 38.8 cubic feet of cargo. Drop the seats, and 81 cubic feet will be at your disposal. The Jeep Grand Cherokee, in contrast, can hold only 72 cubic feet.
Accessing the cargo hold is simply a matter of popping the rear liftgate. The rear glass can be raised independently to make loading of extra long items feasible. As with the previous Sable, Mercury's Wagon comes with a third-row rear-facing jump seat. This seat is pretty small, and will hold only two small children. It is a thoughtful item to have, however, and it comes with three-point safety belts and folds easily into the floor when not in use. The Sable Wagon also has an additional hidden storage area underneath the floor that can be used to hold small items and flush cargo tie-downs built into the floor.
Everything ahead of the cargo area is pretty much like the Sable Sedan. Mercury made a variety of interior improvements for the 2000 model year, including a new instrument panel, more interior storage and higher quality materials. With the exception of the wagon's rear wiper controls that are quarantined away on the lower left of the dash, the rest of the Sable's controls are logically placed. Cruise control is easy to master thanks to the steering wheel-mounted controls. The front cupholder design, with its adjustable arm that allows a variety of different-sized bottles and cups, is one of the better ones you'll find in a family-oriented vehicle.
For 2000, there are two trim levels: GS and LS Premium. The LS Premium adds interior features like front bucket seats, a center console, simulated wood trim, dual-bladed sun visors, and power adjustable pedals. The adjustable pedal assembly is a great feature. Both the brake and throttle pedals can be moved horizontally up to 3 inches toward the driver from the standard location by using a switch located on the driver's lower seat cushion.
Overall interior material quality is better than you might expect from a domestic vehicle. The Sable can't match the level of the Passat's innards, but there is a decent amount of soft-touch plastic used on the dash. We could do without the LS Premium's fake wood trim, however, as it really just looks too cheesy. One of our editors also wasn't too fond of the upgraded leather trim of our test vehicle, saying the "worn" look of the leather-wrapped steering wheel and seats reminded him of ugly '70s American cars, those types of vehicles being something he'd just as soon forget. We also noticed that the leather seats often caused glare on the radio and climate displays.
Since the wagon is so similar to the sedan, interior dimensions for passengers are nearly identical. The Sable Wagon offers nearly the same amount of room for rear seat passengers that a Sable Sedan does. As such, there is enough legroom, shoulder room and foot room for adults. Over long distances, however, they will probably complain about the lack of headrests and armrests and then find fault with the seat contouring. Or more accurately, the lack of contouring. The rear seat's surfaces are about as flat as a topography map of Kansas. In terms of creature comforts, Mercury provides rear passengers with door-mounted storage bins, map pockets on the back of the front seats, rear air vents and a rather flimsy cupholder that pulls out from the rear of the center console.
If you plan on hauling lots of people and cargo on a regular basis, it would probably be worth your while to get the more powerful 3.0-liter DOHC V6. This engine is standard on the LS Premium Wagon and optional on the GS Wagon. It is rated at 200 horsepower at 5,650 rpm and 200 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm. A four-speed automatic is the only transmission offered. On the street, the engine offers a decent amount of torque at low revs, though it certainly pulls best once the tachometer clears 4,000 rpm. As with many current Ford/Mercury products, the tach lacks a redline indicator.
At the track, our test wagon was a little disappointing, running from zero to 60 in 9.7 seconds and lumbering through the quarter-mile in 17.2 seconds at 82.2 mph. When we recently tested a 2000 Taurus Sedan equipped with the DOHC V6, it was about a second faster than the wagon in both the zero-to-60 test and the quarter-mile. The wagon does weigh about 150 more pounds than the sedan, but that is not enough to explain the discrepancy. The wagon did match the sedan in terms of braking, stopping from 60 mph to zero in 136 feet. In this case, the Sable Wagon has an advantage over the sedan, as it has four-wheel disc brakes instead of the sedan's rear drums.
Obviously, the Sable Wagon is built for cruising, not high-performance driving. Pushed toward its limits, the Sable's suspension gets mushy and allows plenty of body roll and movement. You're not going to see Jay Leno pacing the Indy 500 in one of these anytime soon. For simple highway droning, though, the wagon is more at ease. Just set the cruise control, load CDs into the optional six-disc changer and let the little monsters in the backseat fight it out to the death. Ride quality is fairly smooth, though a couple of our editors noted that the wagon's shape seemed to cause higher levels of wind noise than are present in the sedan.
So if you were to decide to replace your SUV with a wagon, would the Sable make a good choice? We think so. True, it basically has zero personality. But the price is certainly agreeable, as even a fully loaded LS Premium tops out at just a shade over $25,000. The Sable's third-row seat and adjustable pedals are useful features, and it does a good job at doing everything a wagon is supposed to do. Price no object, we'd gladly take a Passat 4Motion Wagon in this midsize wagon group. But for the money, the Taurus/Sable Wagon is hard to beat.
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