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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.
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.