The Mercury Villager and Mercury Capri

Despite falling sales, Mercury was able to claim sixth from Dodge in 1993, then held the spot on steadily rising volume that reached nearly 387,000 units in 1994. It was a quite credible performance considering that Mercury had only two products in this period not shared with Ford -- and that only one was a real success. These two products were the Mercury Villager and Mercury Capri.

The product in question was the Villager, arriving for 1993 as Mercury's first minivan. At first glance, it seemed just a belated copy of the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager that had been around for a decade and still dominated minivan sales by a wide margin. Indeed, Villager followed their lead by being a front-wheel-drive design sized about halfway between their standard and extended Grand models, riding a 112.2-inch wheelbase and stretching 189.9 inches overall.

But Villager had its attractions, starting with neat, trim styling that was arguably more-fashionable than Chrysler's, plus standard (instead of optional) four-wheel antilock brakes. Mercury also avoided the sham of price-leader models with four-cylinder power and manual transmission, opting for GS and luxury LS editions with a 3.0-liter 150-bhp single-overhead-cam V-6 and four-speed overdrive automatic.

Villager's chassis was more sophisticated, too, its modern all-coil suspension making for even more carlike ride and handling than Chrysler had. It even had a clever novelty in a sliding three-place third-row bench seat that could be moved up on built-in floor tracks to substitute for the removable two-place middle bench; it could also be slid halfway up to open up extra cargo space behind.

Trouble was, Villager was all but identical with Nissan's new Quest, built to the same design that borrowed liberally from the Japanese firm's Maxima sedan. The Mercury differed only in having an illuminated front "light bar" a la Sable, plus minor trim and equipment distinctions.

At least these twins were built in the U.S., produced under Ford auspices in Ohio. It was another joint venture of the sort increasingly common in the industry, but Ford's influence here was confined to minor areas like switchgear and interior materials.

Fortunately for L-M, buyers weren't at all bothered by Villager's Asian origins, especially with high-value base prices of $16,500-$22,000. In fact, thanks to a deliberate production bias in Mercury's favor, Villager outsold Quest by more than 2-to-1 for debut '93 at nearly 109,000.

While that was only about a quarter of combined Caravan/Voyager sales, it was hardly bad for such a Johnny-come-lately. And, of course, it was all "plus" business for L-M dealers.

For 1994, Villager added a top-line Nautica model with standard leather interior, front and middle "captain's chair" bucket seats, and a blue/cream color scheme inspired by Nautica sports­wear. Nissan was accorded more Quests that season, which partly explains why Villager volume dropped to just under 62,000 for the model year.

Both versions added a standard ­driver-side airbag, but still lacked a passenger-side restraint like Chrysler's minivans. Production sank a bit further for 1995, reflecting stiffer price and product competition in this fast-moving market.

Mercury wasn't at all successful with its other unique product of this period, which was American only in the market it targeted. This was an Australian-built two-seat convertible that appeared in mid-1990 as yet another Capri.

Like Tracer, it was based on the small 323 platform from Japanese affiliate Mazda, with the same proven front-drive mechanicals plus four-wheel-disc brakes, independent rear suspension, driver-side airbag, and an optional liftoff hardtop. A 1.6-liter four delivered 100 bhp in the base model or 132 turbocharged ponies in the uplevel XR2.

Yet despite open-air allure and affordable pricing in the $13,000-$15,000 range, this Capri just didn't sell. Dumpy styling hurt as much as indifferent workmanship, and Mazda's own Miata offered a prettier, "more authentic" sports car with superior Japanese build quality for not many more dollars.

With all this, Capri sales peaked at about 21,200 for calendar '91, then plummeted to nowhere. Mercury gave up after 1994, when it instituted a mild facelift and standard passenger-side airbag. Perhaps the Capri name had been cursed.

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