That's the dilemma facing the Mercury Mountaineer. It is, at its core, a truck. It shares its chassis and powertrain options with the upper level Ford Explorer models. The Mountaineer is distinguished from the Ford mostly by fancy trim such as the bright grille, as well as the absence of budget models with basic equipment.
If this upscale positioning presents any problems to buyers, it's hardly evident. Though the Mountaineer sells in quantities well short of Explorer's total, it is popular enough that Lincoln-Mercury dealers would revolt if this swank sport-utility were pulled from their lineup. The Mountaineer works well for buyers who want an SUV with some distinction, but can't justify spending $35,000 for a true luxury SUV.
For 2000, the interior has been refined for greater comfort and improved appearance. Side-impact air bags have been added to the options list for the front seats. Also optional is a rear load-leveling suspension for 4WD models and a reverse sensing system that uses an ultrasonic sonar system to warn drivers of objects behind the vehicle when backing up.
The price of entry is $27,370 for a Mountaineer 2WD with a 4.0-liter V6 and five-speed automatic. At the top of the line is the $29,835 Mountaineer AWD with 5.0-liter V8 and 4-speed automatic.
In addition to the engine choices, Mercury offers two main option packages, called Premier ($595, available only in Spruce Green) and Monterey ($495). Other option packages include the Convenience Group ($1,195) and the Luxury Group ($1,495). Individual options include electronic temperature control ($275); power moonroof ($800); reverse sensing system ($245); side-impact air bags ($390); HomeLink/Travel Note ($215); towing package (including 3.73:1 axle ratio) ($355); rear load-leveling ($395); skid plates ($105); a MACH audio premium sound system ($440); 6-disc CD changer ($370); electronic temperature control ($275).
Unlike the Explorer, the Mountaineer is offered only as a four-door. The long front and rear doors offer easy entry, aided by running boards, which come standard. The cargo area is reached via a liftgate that rises high and out of the way. The standard P225/70R15 tires have all-season tread that's a good compromise for the mostly street use of most owners.
The spare tire is mounted under the vehicle at the rear, which makes for messy tire changes if you do have a flat on a sloppy day, but sure saves cargo space and there's no awkward tailgate-mounted spare blocking rearward vision.
Underneath the Mountaineer it's all truck, with separate body-on-frame construction and a leaf-spring rear suspension. The front suspension uses torsion bars and independent short and long control arms. Power rack-and-pinion steering is standard, as are four-wheel disc brakes with ABS.
Furthermore, a particularly generous pass-through between the back seat and the B-pillar makes entry to and exit from the back seat easier than some other 4-door sport-utilities. The Mountaineer felt like a big rig before the advent of the Lincoln Navigator.
The dashboard is straightforward with highly legible gauges. In addition to the speedometer, tachometer, fuel and engine temperature needles, there's a voltmeter and oil pressure gauge. The rotary dial to control the V6 model's four-wheel-drive system is simple and, like the other controls, it exudes a feel of quality. The column shifter for the automatic transmission has an overdrive lockout button which can be used to keep the transmission from "hunting" in hilly areas or when towing.
Even in standard trim, the Mountaineer is loaded with power windows and door locks with illuminated controls, and power mirrors. Cruise control is standard. The standard cloth seats are satisfactory, and many owners will prefer cloth to the optional leather upholstery, especially when it's hot or cold.
The 4.0-liter, single-overhead-cam V6 makes only 5 less horsepower the V8's peak output, but almost 50 foot-pounds less torque. The lighter service V6 rewards buyers with a 2 mile-per-gallon around-town improvement in fuel economy.
The V6's automatic transmission uses five gears, while the V8 makes do with four. The added torque of the V8 makes the extra gear unnecessary. This muscle down low, combined with the V8 model's lower final drive, make it the first choice for towing or hauling heavy loads in hilly areas. For most people, however, the V6 may be the better choice.
The Mountaineer's steering is quick and responsive, and the vehicle turns directions decisively. Despite its high center of gravity, the Mountaineer feels stable, but there is noticeable lean in mid-to-hard cornering. The ride is well cushioned, though the truck-size tires and wheels are heavy, which can be felt on particularly bumpy roads. Likewise, the live axle at the rear has mass that can be felt on rough pavement. Anyone accustomed to the velvet ride of fully independent suspension will notice the Mountaineer's heavy-duty underpinnings.
The 4WD system, available for V6-powered Mountaineers, is a full-time four-wheel-drive system that features Ford's Control Trac system. A rotary switch allows the driver to switch among three modes: Auto, High, Low. Most of the time, you'll want to leave it in Auto. Auto mode automatically transfers power front to rear as needed. Under normal conditions, most of the power is delivered to the rear wheels. Whenever the system senses a loss in traction to the rear wheels, it transfers the appropriate amount of power to the front wheels. The 4WD High mode provides full power to all four wheels and is only intended for severe winter or off-road conditions such as deep snow or solid, continuous ice or sand or mud. The 4WD Low mode uses a low-range set of gears for extremely difficult terrain such as deep sand, steep grades or pulling a trailer out of the water on a slippery ramp. The driver can switch between Auto and 4WD on the fly; like other systems, stopping is required before shifting into low range. A limited-slip rear differential is offered as an option on V6 models and is recommended for people living in the Snow Belt or anyone who drives on slippery surfaces.
The AWD system, which comes standard on V8-powered Mountaineers, drives all four wheels. Whenever traction is limited, it transfers power to the wheels with the best traction. The driver does not need to do anything to make all this happen. Unlike part-time four-wheel drive, all-wheel drive enhances handling. All-wheel drive works well for most people as it improves control in snow, heavy downpours and on dirt roads.
The Mountaineer is also available with just two-wheel drive with either engine, though few V8s come equipped this way.
The Mountaineer has two conflicting personalities. Shiny grille and all, this vehicle is essentially a truck, and it will deliver should the going get rough. However, we don't see that happening very often. Most buyers use their Mountaineers as station wagons and few of them will actually see the mountains.
Model as tested
Mountaineer AWD V8 ($29,835)
3 years/36,000 miles
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
Model Line Overview
2WD V6 ($37,370); 4WD V6 ($29,370); AWD V8 ($29,835)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual second-generation front airbags, ABS standard; door-mounted side-impact air bags, reverse sensing system optional
Safety equipment (optional)
5.0-liter sohc16v V8
Specifications as Tested
(AWD) anti-lock brakes, power steering, air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette stereo, power windows, mirrors and locks, cruise control, speed-sensitive intermittent wipers, floor mats with reversible cargo mat, premium cloth upholstery, leather wrapped tilt wheel, fog lamps, liftgate with flip-open rear window, luggage rack, running boards, aluminum wheels, rear wiper/washer and defroster, cargo cover, 60/40 split-folding rear seat
Engine & Transmission
5.0-liter sohc16v V8
front-engine, all-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
215 @ 4200
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear