Neil Dunlop, Contributor
Yeah, we know: the Mercury Grand Marquis is just a fleet car, or a mode of transport for seniors, especially those living in a Florida retirement community.
Think again. The new 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis may not be the sexiest car on the road, but for under $30,000, it is a terrific deal. Even if you're not driving to a canasta game or to the early-bird special at the Loaded Plate buffet, you'll enjoy its sumptuous ride, commodious interior, vibrant powertrain and surprisingly dynamic handling.
And, for those of you who might accuse us of being ageist, Mercury Group Brand Manager Elena Ford (yes, the great, great granddaughter of Henry Ford) told us the majority of Grand Marquis sales are to folks over 60. Well, they say with age comes wisdom.
You don't have to be wise, however, to appreciate the improvements to the Grand Marquis' frame and suspension. The Mercury engineers stiffened the torsional rigidity of the frame by 24 percent, which improves comfort, ride and driving dynamics. The Grand Marquis is built on the same platform as the Lincoln Town Car and the Ford Crown Victoria. All share a body-on-frame construction, which is now almost exclusively used to build pickup trucks. The reason for this assembly is that it provides the best durability and it also keeps costs down since it's an old-fashioned design. Town Cars and Crown Vics are the preferred choice of limousine services and police departments (respectively) where they get constant, often punishing, use. They have to be built to last.
And a car is only as good as its weakest link, so a flexible frame means that suspension, steering and braking will be sloppy, too. However, there's nothing sloppy about the new Grand Marquis: it's as solid and unyielding as an NFL linebacker. This is a marked improvement over last year's model, which was too floaty and too loose.
A flexible frame also allows more noise, vibration and harshness into the cabin. For 2003, Mercury took advantage of the Grand Marquis' body-on-frame construction by placing numerous damping "pucks" between the frame and the body, which reduced vibration from uneven road surfaces. The stiffer frame and the dampers work: the new Grand Marquis provides a ride that rivals luxury sedans for its plushness and serenity.
The frame isn't the only slightly anachronistic aspect of the Grand Marquis' construction. The sedan also employs a solid rear axle whereas just about every other car (and even many SUVs) uses an independent rear suspension for better comfort and handling. Mercury has retained the solid rear axle because it says that the volume buyers (i.e. limo and police) for the Town Car and Crown Vic feel that it is more durable and easier to repair. The knock against the setup, however, is that it provides a harsher ride over bumps than independent designs. Mercury made a few adjustments to ameliorate this disadvantage. First, engineers replaced the coil springs with load-leveling air springs (on LS Ultimate and LSE trim levels). Next, they moved the shock absorbers from their previous inboard location to outside the frame rails where they can better handle the unsprung weight of the axle. From this position, the shocks can better absorb bumps. Also, whereas the previous model had a reputation for a back end with a tendency to "skate," or skip, while cornering on rough roads, the new setup keeps the rear tires firmly on the blacktop.
While we were behind the wheel of the new Grand Marquis it never displayed any of its old tendencies: the back end stayed rooted to the road, which increased our confidence in the car's ability and our enjoyment of the drive. In addition, the new suspension setup has reduced the tendency for the Grand Marquis to drift and pull with the camber of the road. During our test drive, we noticed that the car now holds its course very well, nearly eliminating the need to make constant corrections and "fight" the road.
Earlier, we mentioned the stiffer chassis had improved the Mercury's steering performance. This is only in addition to the huge gains made by switching to a rack-and-pinion system for 2003. The previous recirculating ball system had too many moving parts and was too spongy. As a result, it took too much effort to operate and its response time was slow. The new rack-and-pinion system has fewer parts and is four times stiffer, which has vastly improved on-center feel and responsiveness. Now, when you turn the wheel, you get immediate response equal to the amount of steering input. Nice. However, the setup is still slightly too numb for our tastes, but we favor sports cars so go-cart handling is our benchmark. For a full-size sedan, the Grand Marquis has terrific steering.
The rear-wheel-drive setup of the Grand Marquis is another facet that attracts police, limo drivers and many private individuals. They like the fact that propulsion and steering are done by two separate sets of wheels, asserting that front-wheel drive places too much responsibility on one set of wheels. One drawback of rear-wheel drive is that handling might not be as good on snow and other slippery surfaces (likely why the Grand Marquis tends to sell best in the snowless South), but standard traction control will help to reduce rear-wheel instability.
Providing power to the rear wheels is the familiar 4.6-liter V8. Unchanged from the previous model, it still makes 220 horsepower at 4,750 rpm and 265 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm; quite enough to propel the 4,052-pound sedan with authority. We found the Grand Marquis was never lacking for thrust, either when merging, passing or simply getting there first. If it isn't enough, the Grand Marquis LSE features dual exhaust, which boosts power to 235 horsepower and 275 pound-feet it's a noticeable boost. In both versions, engine noise is low, adding to the serenity of the cabin.
The Grand Marquis comes in two models: the GS and the LS. Each is available in several different trim levels, which we list with prices below. All, but the top-of-the-line LSE have front and rear bench seats and can accommodate six people. The shifter on the LSE is moved from the steering column to the center console, eliminating the front center seat. All models have incredibly roomy cabins, with plentiful foot-, head-, leg- and shoulder room. Combined with the spacious seats and large greenhouse, the interior has all the comfort of a recliner in a sunny room.
The interior design is quite prosaic, however, with more hard plastic, flat, bland surfaces, and cheapish switchgear than we like to see. A little creativity would be nice, such as adding some organic curves to the dash. Still, the starting price for the base GS trim is just $24,775, and even the LSE costs just $30,010, which, considering the amount of equipment included and the great ride provided, is a whole lot of car for the money.
The base GS is fairly well equipped with standard antilock brakes, air conditioner, CD player, eight-way power driver seat and power windows, locks and mirrors. Next level is the GS Convenience ($25,195), which includes power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals, remote keyless entry and leather seating. Moving up to LS Premium ($28,505) adds 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, a power passenger seat and leather-wrapped steering wheel. LS Ultimate ($29,685) supplies a wood steering wheel, electronic instrumentation and the rear air suspension. And the LSE has all of the above, as well as tuned handling, plus the aforementioned center console shifter and the extra power via dual exhaust.
It all makes the Grand Marquis a nice place to be. We drove more than 300 miles in a day and emerged from the car without any of the fatigue normally associated with long car travel. In fact, we even jockeyed for time in the driver seat.
See, we can always learn something new from the older generation.
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