In the midst of corporate losses, executive shuffling and the gloomy aftermath of the Firestone tire recall, Ford has been doing its best to think happy thoughts. More so than any other automaker, it has been playing up its heritage, as seen in such products as the Forty-Nine concept car, GT40 supercar, retro-styled Thunderbird and classically themed Bullitt and Mach 1 Mustangs. For 2003, the trend continues with the return of the Mercury Marauder.
We'd guess that a significant percentage of the American population doesn't know that there's a Marauder to revive. Never possessing the iconic weight of cars like the Pontiac GTO or Chevrolet Chevelle SS, the Marauder first appeared in 1964 as a performance version of Mercury's Montclair, Monterey and Park Lane two- and four-door sedans. The Marauder was available with a huge 427-cubic-inch V8 that made up to 425 gross horsepower. A new Marauder arrived in 1969 riding a shorter wheelbase and sporting a "tunnelback" rear window design. It came in standard and X-100 trim, with either a 390-cubic-inch V8 or a 429 big-block V8 making 360 gross horsepower. The Marauder survived through 1970, but then died due to slow sales and disinterest in performance-tuned large cars.
For the third time around, Mercury has gone to its fullsize sedan, the Grand Marquis, as the Marauder starter kit. A Marauder concept was first shown at the 1998 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show, and a final production version appeared at the 2001 Chicago Auto Show.
While four years is a long time to wait for a car, you'll probably be glad that Mercury waited till the '03 model year. It's this year that the Grand Marquis has received a number of important updates. A new full-perimeter frame uses strong, lightweight hydroformed steel sections for the front rails to improve frontal and offset crash performance. Redesigned frame crossmembers and new side-impact airbags improve side-impact crash performance. Additionally, the new frame combined with a redesigned independent front suspension and new monotube shock absorbers at all four wheels contributes to a smoother, more controlled ride and improved handling.
Other changes include a new variable ratio rack-and-pinion steering system with variable power assist (the 2002 car has a less precise recirculating ball design) and a new dual-rate brake booster that automatically supplies full braking power in a panic stop even if the driver doesn't initially apply enough pedal pressure to engage the antilock brakes. On the inside, the seats have been revised to improve comfort and appearance; the cupholders are new; a three-point seatbelt has been added for the rear center passenger; and the door trim has been redesigned for a cleaner appearance.
To create the Marauder, Mercury first forgoes the Grand Marquis' SOHC 16-valve 4.6-liter V8 and replaces it with a 4.6-liter DOHC V8 (or 281 cubic inches, if you prefer). Essentially the same engine that powered the 2002 Mustang Cobra, it makes 302 horsepower at 5,750 rpm and 318 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm. The sole transmission offered is a four-speed automatic, though Mercury has added a high-stall torque converter, a limited-slip rear differential and a 3.55:1 rear axle ratio to improve the car's off-the-line acceleration.
Promotional material for the Marauder shows the car spinning its rear tires during a burnout at a drag strip. Our initial impression is that the Marauder feels fast, but not in the classic muscle car way. Because of the wide rear tires and the engine's bias for mid- to high-end power, the car won't actually spin its tires during a normal acceleration run. It's only when the driver first applies the brakes for a brake-torque launch that the rear tires will break loose. Mercury says the car will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, considerably faster than a stock Grand Marquis.
The Marauder certainly sounds the part, thanks to a tuned dual exhaust system that features 2-inch diameter pipes and visible 3.5-inch stainless steel Megs exhaust tips. Its vocal range is a lot like a Mustang Cobra, a fact not surprising considering the engine source. Blip the throttle a few times and heads will certainly swivel.
For the suspension, the Marauder uses the Grand Marquis' independent front suspension (a short- and long-arm design with steel upper and aluminum lower control arms) and a live-axle rear. To improve handling performance, Mercury has added stiffer springs in the front, front and rear Tokico sport-tuned dampers and larger antiroll bars. The rear suspension (upper and lower control arms with a lateral Watt's linkage) features load-leveling air springs, which Mercury says are quite adept at maintaining the car's ride height even when the trunk is fully loaded while traveling over minor road imperfections.
Considering its large dimensions and 4,165-pound curb weight, the Marauder is impressive during tight maneuvers. The body doesn't roll excessively and the new steering system improves the feel and precision of the car. It's easy to drive quickly. Outright grip is also high (an estimated 0.88 g on a skidpad) because of 18-inch wheels and sticky BFGoodrich g-Force T/A tires (P235/50WR18 in front and P245/55WR18 in back). At the vehicle's introduction, we were unable to drive the Marauder over anything other than smooth roads, so we can't comment authoritatively on the car's ride quality, but we don't expect it to be unduly compromised.
To keep the driver from sliding around in his seat when cornering, the Marauder comes with extra bolstering for lateral thigh, lumbar and shoulder support. Both front seats are eight-way power adjustable and are appointed in black leather with "French seam" stitching meant to mimic the upholstery design of earlier Marauders. Other changes specific to the Marauder include metallic-like trim accents, white-faced gauges, additional Auto Meter oil-pressure and voltmeter gauges and a winged god Mercury's head logo embossed into the front seatbacks.
As four-door sedans go, this is about as good as it gets in terms of horsepower for the dollar; the Marauder offers 302 ponies for approximately $35,000. Mercury officials are honest about the target market: enthusiast drivers, many of them people who either own or have thought about owning a '94-'96 Chevrolet Impala SS with its Corvette-derived 5.7-liter V8.
Dick Cupka was the chief program engineer for the Marauder, as well as a key player in the development of the Lincoln LS. Both cars are V8-powered sedans. When asked which one he likes better, Dick replied, "Certainly, the Lincoln is smaller and handles better. But which one makes my heart beat faster? It's this one right here," he exclaimed while pointing to a parked Marauder.
That's the appeal. There are other sub-$40,000 sedans that are more nimble, more refined and more prestigious. But none of them offer the emotional satisfaction of this modern-day muscle car.