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The Mercury Monterey offers safety and convenience. Its third-row seat folds flat into the floor, offering lots of cargo space for a family of four, and it can carry up to seven. Most models come trimmed in leather. The Monterey is competitively priced, and is essentially a Ford Freestar, only a little more upscale, with a higher level of standard equipment and more options, including heated-and-cooled seats.
The Monterey comes standard with a big 4.2-liter V6 that packs a lot of torque, giving it good performance. It's rated to pull trailers of up to 3,500 pounds when equipped with a new Class II towing package. On the road, the Monterey is smooth and quiet with responsive steering and handling. Parking is made easier by its front and rear park-assist system.
Safety features abound, though some are optional. The Monterey stands out with its three-row Safety Canopy airbag system, designed to offer head protection for passengers in all three rows, and an occupant-sensing front-passenger airbag. The Monterey also offers four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and AdvanceTrac stability control with traction control and panic brake assist, all of which can help the driver maintain control. There's a tire-pressure monitoring system and self-sealing tires. Monterey earned the highest possible score (five stars) in government frontal crash tests, and has been cited by the insurance industry for its offset-frontal crash performance.
The Mercury Monterey is a traditionally styled minivan that blends in. Most of its bodywork is shared with the Ford Freestar. The vertically textured grille and more restrained headlamps distinguish the Mercury and suggest a family resemblance to the bolder Mountaineer sport-utility.
Satin-aluminum accents and a monochromatic color scheme hint at the Monterey's upscale ambitions. An optional liftgate spoiler adds a sporty note to 2005 Luxury and Premier models.
One unusual design feature is the way the front side windows lower below the inside portion of the door trim. When the window is fully down, the inner door panel sticks up above at a comfortable armrest height.
Turn-signal repeaters in the outside mirrors are a nice feature, helping to warn other motorists of your intentions, which can be particularly helpful when someone is in your blind spot. An interesting feature we noticed was that whenever one of the sliding side doors is open the mirror signal on that side blinks. It's a clever idea, and could help alert passing motorists that people are getting in or out of your Monterey.
The Monterey features the same interior as the Freestar, with more upscale materials. The focal point of the interior is a watch-like clock in the middle of the center dash. Both wood and bright-metal accents add richness.
Heating and air conditioning controls offer three zones of control, left, right, and rear, to tailor the temperature for your individual passengers. The rear A/C works well and is an important feature for kids and pets on hot days. The audio controls work fine, but don't exude quality. No navigation system is available.
Given Monterey's luxury aspirations, its seats could be more comfortable. The front seats are like bar stools, with narrow bottoms that lack side support. The good news is the front seats of the top-level Premier can be cooled as well as heated, good for cold winter mornings and hot summer afternoons.
Monterey seats seven: two in front, two in the second row, three in the third row. Like the front seats, the second-row captain's chairs are narrow and lack support, but there's plenty of room for two adults. The third-row bench seat works for pipsqueaks, but its short seat height makes it cramped for teenagers. Getting to the third row is relatively easy. The second-row seatbacks can be folded with one hand, which makes life easier when loading stuff in back. And the seat bottoms can be tumbled forward for crawling into the third row.
The Monterey offers plenty of room for cargo. Even when all seats are in place for seven passengers, there's 31.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row. A well behind the third row helps corral groceries and other stuff you put back there.
The third row folds easily into that well, leaving a large, flat floor and 71.6 cubic feet of cargo space. The seat's operation is among the best. Simply pull a set of clearly labeled straps numbered in sequence and the third row disappears. The head restraints push down into the seat so they don't have to be removed, a nice feature. Want to host a tailgate party? The third-row bench can be dropped backwards for alfresco dining out back.
The second-row seats don't disappear into the floor, but do flip up to create more cargo room. They fold and tumble forward like those on the Mercury Mountaineer, for easy access to the third row or to create even more cargo room. The second-row seats can be removed, but that's clumsy and a task better suited for two people. Doing so does turn the Monterey into a major cargo hauler, however. With the third-row seat folded and second-row seats removed, there's 131 cubic feet of cargo space, albeit less than what's available in the Chrysler Town & Country.
The Monterey has lots of storage for odds and ends, from bins in the rear sliding doors for books and toys to double map pockets in the front doors. A covered storage compartment on top of the dash is a good spot for cell phones and other small items. The storage compartment at the bottom of the center dash is handy for all kinds of things, but the plastic lid feels cheap, and the center console is the same story. Cup holders abound, including front door holders for 20-ounce bottles. A sturdy, well-positioned cup holder folds down from the side of each of the second-row seats. If kicked, as they likely will be, they snap back into their storage position against the seats. Some of the cup holders at the very rear are awkwardly positioned, however.
Overall, the Monterey is practical and convenient, but doesn't feel as refined as the best of the luxury minivans.
Mercury Monterey comes with only one engine, the bigger of the two offered on the Freestar. It's a 4.2-liter overhead-valve V6 that delivers 201 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. It doesn't measure up to the 240 horsepower of the new Nissan Quest, nor the 230 horsepower of the redesigned Toyota Sienna. But Monterey serves up more torque than Sienna and Quest, which develop 242 pound-feet, and torque is the force you actually feel when you step on the gas, propelling you away from intersections and up steep grades. Monterey's 4.2-liter V6 is the largest in any minivan, and does a commendable job at passing. Monterey's four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and quickly.
We found the Monterey Premier we drove to be smooth and quiet, though it's not the most refined vehicle in its class in terms of noise and vibration. We found its steering and handling responsive. The brakes seem effective and are smooth and easy to modulate for nice, smooth stops in daily driving.
Parking is made easier with the Monterey's excellent park-assist system, which signals the driver with increasingly fast beeping tones as the bumper approaches another object. The front and rear use different tones, making parallel parking a breeze. We found that the system beeped when someone walked in front or behind us, which can be helpful in crowded parking lots.
The Mercury Monterey is an extremely competent minivan. It shares much in common with the Ford Freestar, which generally carries a lower list price than does the Monterey. However, depending on the trim level and content package, a Monterey with all of its standard fare could represent a better value than a Freestar that has to be loaded up with options. And Mercury offers features that the Freestar does not, including a seat-cooling system and perforated suede upholstery in the first and second rows.
-With Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.
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