Mercury sales dropped off in the 2000s despite additions like the Milan sedan.

Mercury in the 2000s

The Mercury Villager minivan was a goner soon after a redesign for 1999, its first major change since its '93 debut.

The makeover was extensive, adding fresh looks, 4.5 inches to overall length, 140 pounds, and a needed left-side rear sliding door as standard. A new 170-bhp V-6 helped offset the weight gain, but the revamped Villager was actually heavier than the newer, somewhat longer Ford Windstar and the top-selling Chrysler minivans.

And while buyers were flocking to new features like power sliding doors and front-seat side airbags, Villager didn't have them and never would. The result was an also-ran that was easy to lose when Ford and Nissan decided to dissolve their minivan joint venture in late 2001.

By that point, Mercury itself seemed to be dissolving. Though the make's combined car and truck sales were a robust 438,000 in calendar '99, the 2000 tally fell some 60,000 units, and the '01 figure was under 311,000. Shocking world events and a boom economy gone bust were partly to blame, but many analysts felt that Mercury had seriously lost focus and would soon land in the celestial junkyard next to Plymouth (canned after 2001) and Oldsmobile (phased out after '04).

Dearborn hotly denied such talk and made several moves to demonstrate its commitment to Mercury. First, Lincoln-Mercury sales and marketing staff were moved to Southern California to soak up that area's celebrated creative sunshine.

Soon afterward, Mercury and Lincoln were rolled into the recently formed Premier Automotive Group, joining the illustrious ranks of Aston Martin, Jaguar, Volvo, and Land Rover, all recent Dearborn acquisitions. In 2002, Mercury got its own design chief for one of the few times in its history. And he reported to one Elena Ford, cousin of chairman and CEO William C. Ford, Jr., newly installed as Mercury group manager.

Besides their PR value, these and other efforts aimed to define a strong new image for Mercury and develop winning products to go with it. But the mission was soon derailed by a variety of problems that increasingly threatened Ford Motor Company's very existence.

Thus, by 2003, Mercury was again "co-located" with Ford Division in Michigan -- and back to selling just retrimmed Fords developed on very lean budgets. Mercury was on the same perilous path that led Plymouth to its demise, gradually losing unique products to become just a "feeder" line for a more-profitable, higher-status brand in the same showroom.

And even shared products were sometimes granted with a curious reluctance. Mercury's first sport-utility vehicle was a case in point. Called Mountaineer, it made an early 1997 debut as a gussied-up four-door Ford Explorer whose basic design was then eight years old. Given the booming demand for Explorer and most other midsize SUVs, it's amazing Dearborn didn't do the Mercury sooner.

Appropriate for its higher prices, Mountaineer had nicer furnishings and more standard equipment, including a 215-bhp 5.0-liter/302 V-8 with four-speed automatic transmission, both options for Explorer. Two years later, the siblings adopted a new base powerteam comprising a 205-bhp 4.0-liter V-6 and a first-in-class five-speed automatic transmission.

A 2002 redesign improved both versions with standard antilock brakes, class-first independent rear suspension, and new options including curtain side airbags and a 240-bhp 4.6-liter overhead-cam V-8 with five-speed automatic. Mountaineer finally got real visual distinction (mostly up front), plus standard three-row seating for seven (optional on the Ford) and available all-wheel drive instead of dual-range four-wheel drive. Offered a bit later was an antiskid system with rollover sensors, shared with Explorer.

But Mountaineer's differences weren't that compelling, and sales oozed along at between 40,000 and 50,000 a year. While this was welcome "plus" business for L-M dealers, it was only a tenth of Explorer's volume and unimpressive in a market crazy for SUVs.

Mercury endured shorter waits for two other hoped-for sales-boosters. A replacement minivan with the nostalgic Monterey name bowed for 2004 as a close copy of that year's new Ford Freestar, which was largely the old Windstar updated.

Sailing in the following year was Mariner, an upscale take on Ford's four-year-old Escape compact SUV. L-M dealers also cheered these additions, however belated, but Mariner sales were modest and Monterey didn't break four figures in its first 12 months. Mean­while, total Mercury sales kept shriveling, reduced to fewer than 194,000 units by calendar '05.

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