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Mercury has completely redesigned and re-engineered its Villager for 1999. It's five inches longer than last year's Villager, giving rear passengers and cargo more space. A second sliding door readies the Villager for the new millenium. Bins and cubbyholes have been added to make everyday life easier and a unique sliding seat transforms it into a mini-limousine. More power and a quieter engine increase its driving appeal.
Still, the Villager offers a leaner, more athletic stance than the other minivans on the market. It's smaller than the Dodge Grand Caravan or Ford Windstar, with dimensions closer to a Dodge Caravan.
In short, the 1999 Villager has all the trappings of the big guys, but offers nimble handling and smart styling. Some may miss the extra room offered by a long-wheelbase Ford or Dodge, but others will prefer the Villager's quick reflexes and versatility.
Mercury's Villager has a unique family tree. When the minivan craze took Ford by surprise in the early 1990s, the company turned to Nissan to help design the Villager and its cousin, the Nissan Quest. In exchange for the Nissan-based platform and drivetrain, Ford provided a factory in northeast Ohio to build both vehicles.
Villager and Quest have proven that blended families can produce great offspring. This new second-generation Villager offers a more practical, flexible interior with increased power to satisfy drivers who might be looking at sport-utility vehicles.
All Villagers use a 3.3-liter V6 engine that provides 170 horsepower, 20 more than the last edition. An electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission takes care of the shifting.
One body style is offered. Two sliding doors allow easy entry for rear-seat passengers, while a rear liftgate provides access to the cargo area.
Three models are available. Villager, Villager Estate and Villager Sport.
The $23,575 base Villager is well equipped with AM/FM/cassette stereo, power windows, mirrors and door locks, and seven-passenger seating.
Villager Estate and Villager Sport each retail for $26,175. Distinguished by Two-tone paint and upscale trim, Estate and Sport replace the base second-row bench seat with luxurious captain's chairs. Low-profile P225/60R16 tires replace the base P215/70R15 rubber.
The Sport model adds white-faced instruments, two-tone paint and other sporty trim and eliminates the luggage rack that comes standard on the other two models.
Major option packages include a $995 Comfort Group, which adds rear air conditioning, rear audio controls, air filtration system and a six-way power drivers seat; and a $995 Luxury Group, which includes leather seating surfaces, the Travelnote memo recorder, the Homelink system, power passenger seat and memory controls for the driver's seat and mirrors.
The Villager Sport we drove came with a full complement of options, including a six-disc CD changer, rear air conditioning, leather seats, and digital instruments, for an as-tested price of $29,580.
Flexibility is the mantra of the minivan customer and Mercury is humming the same chant. Between the number of doors it offers and the number of seating positions, we're confident that the Villager won't leave many owners wanting for usability.
From the driver's seat, the Villager offers a sweeping view of the road ahead. The view out the back isn't bad, either. The Villager's cabin is glassy and tall, giving a commanding view all around. The bucket seats in the first and second rows are shaped correctly for long-haul drives, and the doors have armrests at the proper height.
The second and third rows of seats are the Villager's prime asset. The second-row bucket seats tip forward for easy access to the third bench. They can also be removed for a large cargo area. The third-row bench can be moved forward into one of six positions on a track that permits nearly five feet of movement front to rear. Behind the third-row bench, an adjustable shelf offers three vertical positions and holds 30 pounds -- a nice idea that adds versatility.
Instrumentation is complete and well-designed. Radio, climate controls and rear-wiper buttons are conveniently placed and well-marked. The CD changer, located below the radio and climate control stack, is out of the way, but can be reached without getting out of the car. Our Villager Sport came with the optional electronic gauge package, but we prefer the traditional analog gauges that come standard. Some of the gray and black plastics in the Villager aren't the finest we've seen.
Two clever features could fit in the palm of a kid's hand. The visor-mounted garage door remote has three programmable buttons that eliminate the need for a clunky clip-on opener. On the same driver visor is a voice note recorder, which stores about a minute's worth of messages. You can leave yourself little verbal notes -- "Milk, eggs, and butter" -- or, as we did, pit your vocal abilities against Sheryl Crow's and play it back for unlucky passengers.
Minivans aren't supposed to be fun to drive and the Villager doesn't cut corners like a sports car, but it does handle well enough to generate some enthusiasm in the curves. The steering is sharp and accurate; the steering system is refined for 1999 for more linear response.
The Villager tracks very well on the highway -- much better than most minivans. Stiff crosswinds barely move it from its intended track, and rough road surfaces pass under the tires without jarring the steering wheel a great deal.
The suspension does a good job of taming the natural roll and lean of a tall-bodied wagon. The ride seems just a touch stiff over concrete joints and tar strips, but composed over most other highway and street surfaces. The front struts were revised for 1999 to improve rebound control, while delivering a softer ride. At the rear, new single-leaf tapered springs replace two-leaf units for a smoother ride.
The brakes can handle repeated stops from highway speeds, but the brake pedal has more travel than a passenger-car driver might want. A new anti-lock brake system is designed for improved durability.
A new 3.3-liter V6 replaces last year's powerplant, raising output to 170 horsepower from 151. That's a significant upgrade, yet this engine is taxed when it has to propel 3800 pounds of vehicle, a family and a full load of vacation gear up a steep grade. On a solo run up the East Coast, laden only with Christmas gifts, the Villager was able to overtake other vehicles in a reasonable stretch, but more horsepower would have made passing more comfortable on two-lane roads.
The Villager is a leaner alternative to the longer-wheelbase minivans and that makes it an appealing choice. It's more compact than the mass-market minivans, so it's easier to park, yet it offers all the flexibility of bigger minivans and nearly as much room.
Villager offers clean styling, a commanding view of the road, and a clever interior design with optional captain's chairs. All of this makes it a great alternative to the Dodge Caravan. Though prices roll up quickly when you add all the goodies, the Villager's driving characteristics and flexibility make it a good value.
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