Greg Anderson, Contributor
While studying the driver's sun visor on the new Mercury Villager, Ron Howard's 1982 comedy film "Night Shift" suddenly came to mind. In case that logic doesn't follow, let us explain. Starring Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton and Shelly Long, "Night Shift" is the story of two morgue workers who become pimps by turning their somber office into a brothel. In it, Keaton plays a character named Bill Blazejowski, a self-described "idea man." Bill is always recording verbal notes into a tape recorder, for future reference. He records "business ideas, inventions, musicals." The ideas are random, the sort of fleeting thoughts that most people don't have the time to write down, such as: "This is Bill. Idea to eliminate garbage: edible paper." What does Billy Blaze from "Night Shift" have to do with the sun visor of our 1999 Mercury Villager Sport, you say? That's simple: they both carry tape recorders.
The Villager we tested was loaded with options, some of which were unlike anything we're used to finding in a minivan. Sure, lots of vehicles have six-disc CD changers, automatic temperature control systems, memory seats and keyless entry systems. Fewer have trip computers that display average mileage and miles-to-empty. And how many digital fuel gauges have you seen recently? Several cars or trucks nowadays are equipped with garage door openers located on the driver's sun visor, but our Villager Sport also came with its own built-in TravelNote digital voice message recorder. This device was handy for recording comments and complaints about the test car, and we barely had to take our eyes from the road to do so. As Billy Blaze would say: "You wonder why I carry this tape recorder? It's to tape things."
Note to self: Verbal recordings are a potential source of entertainment.
Minivans are among the most competitive class of vehicle in the American marketplace. Each year, these suburban people-movers come out with ingenious new features, extra safety equipment, more powerful engines, and more interior room in a manageable package. If it weren't for their slightly bloated, strictly utilitarian appearance, minivans would be sought after for more than just family transportation.
The Lincoln-Mercury division of Ford Motor Company partners with Nissan Motor Corp. The Quest and Villager twins are designed by Nissan and make use of a Nissan engine, but they're built at a Ford manufacturing plant in Ohio and sold under two nameplates. The Villager differs from the Nissan Quest only in name, a few interior pieces and some exterior badges.
From the driver's seat, the Villager is a study in futuristic automotive design, and, in this regard, it may be a few years ahead of its time. We're not talking about the placement of stereo or temperature controls, which are modern and completely intuitive. Our test vehicle came with the optional Electronic Instrument Cluster, which includes everything from an outside temperature reading to the aforementioned digital fuel gauge. The speedometer is located in the center of it all, showing the car's speed in a glowing green digital readout that looks like the display on a police radar gun. A digital tachometer glows up and around the speedometer readout, and the effect -- though high-tech -- is surprisingly uncluttered and easy to read.
Note to self: Disco dash isn't as annoying as it seems at first. But why opt for it when the Sport model normally comes with unique white-faced gauges?
In order to remain competitive these days, minivan makers must pay close attention to the trends. This year, the Villager comes with dual sliding doors. Unfortunately, neither door is electrically powered, even on the top-level Sport trim. Well, at least the doors are there this year; maybe they're saving the power wiring for next year's update.
Derived from the same platform as the Nissan Maxima, the Villager is hampered by a relatively short 112.2-inch wheelbase. When compared to another recently redesigned Japanese competitor, the Honda Odyssey, the Villager suffers from size envy; both the Odyssey's wheelbase and overall length are six inches longer, making the interior much roomier. A parcel shelf is located behind the Villager's rear bench, which creates twice as much space for grocery storage. The shelf can hold up to 30 pounds.
The Villager Sport's second-row chairs (a bench unit on the base model) can be removed easily from either side of the van, but we had a difficult time removing the third-row bench seat. Try as we might, the stubborn legs simply would not release from the floor. Then we discovered that the legs were attached to rails, which allowed the seat to slide forward all the way to the front of the van, ending up just behind the front seats. This procedure creates an open space in the back of the vehicle, but it makes us think fondly of the Honda Odyssey's magic flip-and-fold seat. The Villager's available cargo space proved adequate for our needs, but it's not up to carrying a 4x8 sheet of plywood. Interior width is four feet, but available length is only 68 inches, or five feet, eight-inches long with the rear seat pushed forward.
Note to self: If we could take the third-row seat out completely, we'd have even more space.
Being the automotive journalists that we are, last year's 151-horsepower 3.0-liter engine could not satisfy our thirst for power. For 1999, the Villager receives a 3.3-liter V6, which provides 170 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque. This is the same engine you'll find under the hoods of Nissan Pathfinder sport-utes and Frontier pickups, and it proved adequate in the performance department, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The down side is that when compared to the Honda Odyssey's 210-horsepower motor, the Villager comes up limping once again. Darn that Honda for creating such a solid benchmark.
The Villager's suspension has been revised up front, and, combined with new single-leaf springs in the rear, the Villager is blessed with a comfortable, balanced ride. Steering is stable, and the van tracks straight on highways. The turning diameter is 39.9 feet, which is two feet wider than -- you guessed it -- the Odyssey.
Note to self: With all the recent talk about corporate mergers involving Ford and Honda, Mercury might do well to just buy Honda and re-badge the Odyssey.
The Sport trim level offers similar equipment to Estate trim, but adds a silver-painted luggage rack and two-tone paint. The Sport and Estate versions further exceed base trim by a leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, a rear parcel shelf, powered and heated side mirrors, a rear stabilizer bar and 16-inch aluminum wheels.
Antilock brakes are optional equipment on all Villagers, once again making this vehicle fall short of the standard set so recently by Honda's similarly priced EX trim-level Odyssey. The value-packed Odyssey also gets a standard CD player and power seats, items that end up costing much more on the Villager. Because our test car topped out at a hair under $30,000 while lacking the cargo room available on minivans from several other manufacturers, we're left wondering how quickly Mercury and Nissan can design the next generation of the Villager/Quest duo. Maybe next time the targets will be more clearly defined.
Note to Mercury and Nissan: If you're serious about selling minivans, take a good look at Chrysler and Honda and copy what they've done right. Then give us powered sliding doors, ABS and side airbags, and take out the do-dads and electronic gizmos. Offer substance over hype. But leave the tape recorder in the sun visor, 'cause this thing's more fun than a telephone conversation with Monica Lewinsky.
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