2003 Mercury Marauder Road Test

2003 Mercury Marauder Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
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2003 Mercury Marauder Sedan

(4.6L V8 4-speed Automatic)

Back to the Future, Part II

Anybody remember the Mercury Marauder? That's OK; neither did most of our staff. Jumping into the full-size muscle car war that started in the early 1960s, the 1963 1/2 Marauder was a more luxurious ride than the Chevy Impala SSs and Ford Galaxie 500s of the day. A 300-horsepower, 390 cubic-inch V8 was standard, but the truly power-hungry checked off the option for the mighty 427 cubic-inch (7.0 liters for those unfamiliar with old-school engine sizes) V8. Consuming huge quantities of gasoline and air through its twin four-barrel carburetors, this brute produced a thundering 425 horsepower. In spite of its charms, the Marauder was never as popular as the big Chevys or Fords.

After disappearing for a few years, the Marauder returned in 1969, with either 390 or 429 V8 power, but by this time the buying public was interested in pony cars (like the Camaro and Mustang) and midsize muscle cars (such as the Pontiac GTO and Chevelle SS396), not oversize, overweight performance cars. Chevy cancelled the Impala SS after 1969, and Mercury dropped the Marauder after 1970.

Fast-forward to 1994 when Chevrolet brought back the Impala SS nameplate, though instead of being affixed to a sporty coupe it was attached to a Caprice sedan that featured the Corvette's 5.7-liter V8 (albeit detuned to a still respectable 260 horsepower) and a tweaked suspension with 17-inch wheels and chubby Goodyears. Produced for only three years, the Impala SS developed a cultlike following among those drawn to the combination of big power and plenty of room for all to enjoy the ride. Thumb through a Hemming's Auto News and you'll see that one of these SSs in primo shape commands strong money. This gearhead never cared for the looks of that car and, along with his colleagues, wondered if and when Ford would produce a hopped-up Crown Victoria — called the XL 500 perhaps? Well, Ford never did respond to the gauntlet thrown down by its arch rival. Until now that is. Nearly 10 years after the Impala SS was briefly resurrected; Mercury brings back its full-size muscle moniker, Marauder, tacked onto a modified version of the Grand Marquis (the uptown twin to the Crown Vicky).

Nothing says "buh-buh-buh-bad" as much as a blacked-out color scheme; in recent history, most muscle cars have worn black (the Buick Grand National and the first batch of those Impala SSs come to mind) and so does the Marauder. Adding to the sinister look are a blacked-out grille and dark tinted headlights and taillights. Massive five-spoke chrome wheels (18-inchers) along with chrome dual exhaust tips finish the car off and the net result is a four-door see-dan that turned heads in exotic-jaded L.A. as if it were J-Lo and Shaquille O'Neal walking down Santa Monica Boulevard buck naked. Wait a minute, that probably wouldn't cause so much as a blinked eye here, but you get the point.

Unlike the '94 and '95 Impala SS, which had its gearshift on the column — about as sporty as a taxicab — the Marauder comes with a floor-mounted shifter along with the buckets and center console. Adding an old-school touch is a pair of Auto Meter gauges for oil pressure and volts. A more modern feature, appreciated by our short and tall staffers alike, is the standard power adjustment for the pedals that allows a proper, relaxed driving position without requiring the vertically challenged to sit too close to the steering wheel.

Instead of fake wood, the dash and doors have, in Mercury's words, "technical-looking dot-matrix gray trim (that) gives the appearance of carbon fiber." Umm…maybe not; it reminded some of us of a close-up view of an old comic strip. Leather seating is standard, and most of us appreciated the comfort of the big, soft eight-way power front buckets which reminded the more fortunate among us of first-class airliner seats. Further setting the Marauder apart from the retirement-community Grand Marquis is the embossed head of the Roman god Mercury seen on the front seatbacks. The downside to the plush seats is that even though they have pronounced side bolsters, the padding is too soft to actually provide serious lateral support. As a result, this car jockey slid around long before the BF Goodrich g-Force T/As did while putting the Marauder's handling to the test.

A 4.6-liter, double overhead cam V8 with 302 horsepower and 318 pound-feet of torque powers the Marauder. This is essentially the same engine found in the 2001 Ford Mustang Cobra. Don't look for a Hurst stick shift as a four-speed automatic is the only transmission choice (as was the case with that mid-'90s Impala SS), but the unit is beefed up for Marauder duty with a higher-stall torque converter and sends the ponies to a limited-slip, 3.55-geared rear end.

With specs like these, one would expect neck-snapping performance from a standstill, but this is not the case. Typically, multivalve (four valves per cylinder versus two) engines make their power at the mid- and upper ranges of the tach where they really start to breathe deeply, so they usually don't have a lot of pull right off the line. In spite of the husky rumble that issued forth from those twin chrome pipes, the Marauder couldn't spin its tires (unless the brakes were held) when the gas was tromped, an admittedly juvenile but necessary rite of passage for a muscle car. We even looked for a traction control switch, thinking perhaps we could shut it off so we could light 'em up. But nope, the Marauder doesn't yet come with that feature (it will become available later in the year). Of course, part of the blame would have to go to those sticky tires (which spec out at 235/50WR18 in front and P245/55WR18 out back).

Once the four-cam V8 hits its stride (at about 3,000 rpm), the big Merc really gets its groove on and pulls with authority up to 6,000 rpm. Although we were unable to perform instrumented testing, Mercury claims the Marauder will hustle to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, certainly a helluva time for such a big car. Passing and merging power is impressive; the car just jets up the on-ramps and to 75 mph effortlessly.

The tweaked tranny earned praise for its well-rounded performance. Driven sedately, the automatic changes gears seamlessly, but put your foot into it, and the upshifts occur quickly and with a satisfying shove to your backside. And to the delight of our most ardent gearheads, we found that the Marauder will bark those fat rear tires on the one-two upshift if you shift for yourself.

One would expect antilock, four-wheel disc brakes on this car, and it's got 'em. And unlike most cars where just the front discs are ventilated, the rear plates on the Marauder are also ventilated, which help to shed heat more effectively and thus resist fade. The binders are up to the task of keeping the Marauder's velocity in check, and a linear pedal, aside from a slightly soft feel, makes them easy to modulate.

For 2003, Mercury (and Ford) made a number of "under the skin" improvements to its full-size sedan. If you happen to drive an '02 and '03 Grand Marquis (or Crown Victoria) back to back, you should notice the increased precision in the steering as well as a generally more solid feel over the bumps and through the turns. The improved dynamics come about via a new, stiffer frame with hydroformed (seamless) front rails, a redesigned front suspension, the use of Tokico monotube shocks and the replacement of the old recirculating ball steering system with a more precise rack and pinion setup. The live axle rear end features air springs that automatically keep the car level regardless of passenger or cargo load, and front and rear stabilizer bars are fitted to keep the Marauder on an even keel when running through curvy roads.

Taking the Marauder through our sinewy 50-mile drive loop which encompasses tight turns through the canyons as well as fast sweepers and steady freeway cruising, we were impressed by how well this 4,200-pound car handled. With such a soft, comfortable ride we expected the car to fall all over itself once we started pushing it in the turns, but much to our joy, the Marauder handled the curves with ease. Body roll was minimal, and with a neutral attitude and incredible grip from the aptly named g-Force T/As, it was possible to hang with some smaller sport sedans whilst tackling the twisties. The steering is light yet direct, but although the variable power assist feature does provide more weight as the car's speed increases, we'd still like even more heft in the wheel. On rough roads, the Marauder absorbed the imperfections without a shudder and the car felt solid as a rock; evidently, the frame engineers have done good.

Another benefit of the new frame is better crash-worthiness, as those hydroformed front rails are designed to absorb front and offset impacts more efficiently, and the revamped crossmembers along with standard side airbags provide better protection in side-impact accidents. Crash tests for the 2003 Grand Marquis (which again is what the Marauder essentially is) haven't yet been conducted, but last year's model posted five stars (the highest score possible) for both driver and front passenger in the NHTSA's frontal impact test and four stars (for both front and rear seats) in its side-impact test. We would expect the 2003 Grand Marquis/Marauder to bring that side-impact rating to five stars in light of the beefier frame and newly standard side airbags.

Other standard safety features include dual-stage front airbags (whose deployment force is dependent upon the severity of the impact); seatbelt pre-tensioners and force limiters; and a panic braking feature that automatically provides full braking power when a panic stop is sensed (via a quick jab to the brakes). Additionally, the brakes feature Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) that automatically optimizes front and rear braking power by taking into account weight transfer, such as during aggressive braking.

With virtually every luxury feature standard, the Marauder's option list is brief and includes just three items: a six-disc CD changer, power moonroof (that will have delayed availability) and a trunk organizer.

Around our office, there were two schools of thought concerning Mercury's new muscle car. Those of us who've always liked the idea of a full-size V8-powered, traditional American sedan that looked cool and hauled gluteus maximus thought the Marauder was aces. And it would be even better with more low-end grunt on tap — nothing a supercharger install couldn't fix. But others weren't so enamored, and believed that for $35,000 there were a number of smaller but better-performing sport sedans that would get their checkbook's vote. But we doubt that anyone considering a Marauder is going to cross-shop it with a BMW 330i. And of course, someone considering that Bavarian delight wouldn't be caught dead in a Mercury showroom. But that's no skin off the nose of that Mercury guy; this car has the luxury of having a niche (however small) all to itself, just as that Impala SS did a decade ago.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 6.0

Components: If you're going to go marauding in this newest Mercury model, it makes sense that you'd want to have some tunes along for the ride. After all, there's nothing worse than marauding without a soundtrack. Unfortunately, we found this one a little disappointing in the stereo department.

The system begins with a standard Ford head unit, which reminds us of the radio we had in our long-term 2000 Lincoln LS. The head unit features a fairly flat topography, with raised rocker panels for most functions. Ergonomics receive positive points, as the radio has wide spacing between most controls. The one downer is the high position of the radio, which may make it a bit of a reach for some drivers. This is somewhat compensated by excellent steering wheel controls, which include volume up-down, seek-scan and mode.

Speakers account for much of the sound in any quality sound system. The Marauder is lacking on several counts in the speaker area, and this no doubt affects the overall sound of this system. Speakers include 6-by-9 full range drivers along the back deck, plus a pair of 5-by-7 full range drivers in the front doors. That's it. No mas. Ford-family vehicles have standardized a similar setup in most of its current vehicles, and it's a bummer. To wit: no separate tweeters in the front leads to questionable high-frequency response and dispersion throughout the cabin, particularly for the front occupants. Also, no speakers in the rear doors leave the rear passengers getting blasted by the deck-mounted 6-by-9s. This is a mediocre arrangement that produces mediocre results.

Performance: With the lackluster speaker offering in the Marauder, it's no wonder the sound is less than exquisite. On the plus side, the Marauder has an excellent power amp that delivers a distortion-free signal to the speakers. Unfortunately, those speakers aren't up to the task of duplicating the signal as elegantly as we'd like. The rear deck-mounted 6-by-9s deliver a bass signal that overpowers the front speakers, drowning the sound system in boom-boom-boom. For you bass hounds, this may sound like heaven on earth. For the rest of us, though, the system comes across as one-dimensional. Some may argue that a simple twist of the fader knob, pushing more of the sound to the front, is a quick solution. But why should the operator have to compensate for the inherent design flaws in the system? The point is this system desperately needs larger speakers in the front along with separate tweeters. To put it simply: Mercury, along with most other Ford division vehicles, has been scrimping in the sound system area for the last two years, and it shows.

Best Feature: Ergonomic head unit.

Worst Feature: No separate tweeters

Conclusion: This system, as tested, came with only a single-play CD player. Option 919 adds a six-disc changer. But a CD changer won't do anything to improve the so-so sound of this system. — Scott Memmer

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
With a big V8 under the hood and fat meats underneath, there's no doubt the Marauder has some uniquely appealing elements to it. Having not driven a Grand Marquis in years, the surprisingly nimble chassis was certainly more fun than I would have ever expected. But there's still something missing from this beefcake on wheels — namely the beef. The DOHC V8 certainly has plenty of guts in the midrange, but it doesn't really plant you in your seat until it hits four grand. That's fine for your average freeway cruiser, but this car was made for lighting 'em up.

The Marauder's price also had me second-guessing its worthiness. For nearly $35K, you would expect a little more than just a more powerful engine and some trim pieces. With any number of luxury sport sedans coming in at the same price or less, you better really love that big floor shifter and those fat tires or you might end up sorely disappointed.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Pundits have tried to convince the head honchos at Ford that Mercury is a dying brand. To rage against the dying of the light, the winged god resurrected an old nameplate to revive sales and interest from the monied young.

Am I a part of that demographic? Definitely not. I prefer my $30,000-plus sedans to have less weight, less length and more goodies. I don't give a fig about heritage, as long as the car or manufacturer has a good reputation for reliability. And yet, I wasn't instantly anathematic to the Marauder. It was a heady feeling to have other drivers peep in their rearview mirrors and instantly slow down or move out of my way, assuming that I was driving a cruiser, off to catch the bad guys (rather than what I was really doing, which was taking a leisurely drive through the meandering roads of Malibu Canyon). The stentorian exhaust note from the V8 induced a grin. But it didn't thrust me to the back of my seat like I would expect a muscle car to; the chassis, while fine for a full-size sedan designed to carry families or travelers and lots of their stuff, wasn't nearly battened down enough to incite the type of bad behavior that I heard owners of muscle cars of yore brag about. And really, if the Marauder isn't going to cause the massive chaos that its forebear did, then what's the point?

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
As cool as the Marauder is, the question remains: How many people out there have been pining for a hot-rodded Grand Marquis? The answer probably doesn't matter to Mercury. The company felt it was time to pump up the division's image, and since it already had a rear-drive V8 sedan in the lineup, the starting point was obvious.

The finished product offers solid appeal. The black exterior and chrome wheels were a hit with one onlooker, who happily claimed, "It looks like a gangster car." Sounds like one, too, with a low grumble that builds to a shriek as the revs climb. But low-end torque is lacking, so much so that it can't break the tires loose from a standing start. As Mercury's take on a modern-day muscle car, this is unacceptable (though it makes a lack of traction control less worrisome). Thankfully, stability and handling are also not muscle carlike, meaning it can be flung down a twisty road with confidence. Steering feel was exceptional and the tires hung on like racing slicks while not making a peep.

Inside, the seating was comfortable, if not particularly supportive during high-G activity. The rear seat has plenty of room for three (as does the trunk), but the faux carbon-fiber accents look as goofy on this car as they do on most.

I like the idea of the Marauder, but the execution could use some work in terms of engine performance (more torque) and interior design (better seat bolstering, different accents).

Consumer Commentary

The combination of looks, sound and performance are only surpassed by the frequent looks and comments my Marauder has received. Originally I felt the car could use additional starting-out "oomph" but as you log some miles you realize it's not necessary. I have had a 1996 Corvette, a couple of Z28s, a 2000 Camaro SS and, during all that time, a 1996 Town Car. This Marauder exceeds my appreciation for them all when considering its good looks, awesome exhaust sound and superb handling. One complaint I have is that the displays for the stereo, climate control and odometer are too bright and when you turn the instrument lights down, they are then too dim. This is the one car that gets positive comments from everybody, be they my peers, older folks or teenagers. — jamesslowell, August 27, 2002

This car is an absolute delight to drive. It is the perfect combination of luxury and good old American muscle car fun. The Marauder does not handle like a regular car of its size. The cornering and maneuverability are excellent! The more I drive it, the more I like it! The only thing I would like to see improved is the low-end torque. — RobbieG, August 15, 2002

Make no mistake about it, this car is comfortable (very much so for a performance sedan). The ride is great, and (it flies) on the highway. The car is loaded with features too; I love the leather seats and the true dual exhaust. My only gripe with it is (that there's not enough) bottom-end grunt. It just isn't enough for this type of vehicle. But once it gets going, it really moves! Other than that, this is an awesome vehicle that is a great replacement (actually better) for the 1994-'96 Impala SS. After taking a test drive I believe you will agree. — Ibeezie12, July 26, 2002

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