Curbside Classic: 1997 Mercury Mountaineer – Exploring Higher Elevations

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If the ’80s was the decade of the minivan, and the ’00s the decade of the crossover, then the ’90s was certainly the decade of the SUV. After several years without a four-door competitor to the hot-selling XJ Jeep Cherokee, Ford was finally ready to go toe-to-toe with Jeep with its 1990 Explorer. The Explorer was an instant hit, but Jeep would counterattack with the larger and more luxurious Grand Cherokee in 1993. Ford would fire back with an updated Explorer for ’95. Offering more room and a less utilitarian interior than its predecessor, the 1995 Explorer was appealing to more buyers than ever (as evidenced by its massive sales increase to nearly 400,000 vehicles that year). At that time, the Explorer’s success was seemingly unstoppable. The only way to go from there was up.

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With the Explorer making fat profits for Ford, it only seemed logical to start selling a higher-priced companion model through Lincoln-Mercury dealers, thereby increasing sales even more. Of course, a little Vivian Ward makeover and a more upscale-sounding name would be needed to make the rugged Explorer presentable in showrooms, next to more finely cultured vehicles such as the Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Cougar.

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Ford could have sold this rebadged Explorer as a Lincoln, but it’s probably best that they went with Mercury. Given the minuscule amount of changes made inside and out, the Mountaineer wouldn’t have looked or felt enough like a Lincoln. Even considering that all Lincolns’ roots could easily be traced to humbler Fords, the Mountaineer wasn’t distinctive or premium enough to wear the Lincoln badge. Moreover, these SUVs were selling like hotcakes, often for well above sticker prices, so the Mountaineer still made Ford plenty of profit as a Mercury. Lincoln would eventually receive an Explorer clone, the 2002 Aviator, but by that point the Explorer’s novelty had largely worn off, and the Aviator looked like a Navigator that went through the dryer.

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It should be worth noting that the first Mercury Mountaineer was not a “luxury SUV” in the sense that it came fully loaded or offered unique equipment or amenities that the Explorer did not. Much like other Mercury vehicles, its cheapest model was about equal to a mid-level Explorer XLT. A more luxurious Mountaineer could be outfitted to the equivalent of an Explorer Eddie Bauer. Oddly enough, the range topping Explorer Limited was somewhat more generously appointed, even more so than a top drawer Mountaineer.

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Regardless, with its waterfall grille and flossier-sounding name, the Mountaineer exuded a more upscale aura than the finest Explorer. In addition to its unique grille, a number of minor enhancements were made in attempt to differentiate Mercury’s first SUV from its Ford donor. For starters, all Mountaineers received gray lower body paint, giving it the cladded appearance that was popular among upscale SUVs at the time.

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Mountaineers also gained the export-market Explorer’s rear bumper with Euro-spec reflectors. An additional reflector panel was added between the reverse signals, giving a full-width effect. A more integrated-looking roof rack was also added, borrowed from the Ford Windstar. Additionally, the Mountaineer was given a unique wheel design.

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Like jewels and a fancy hairdo, these alterations helped the Mountaineer look the part of a more posh SUV. What these modifications could not do, was make the Mountaineer look any less like an Explorer.

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On the inside, things were even more familiar. Save for embroidered “Mountaineer” logos on the front upper seat backs, the Mountaineer’s interior was identical to the Explorer’s. Cloth seats were standard, while perforated heated leather seats were a $955 option. Overall, the interior was still very truck-like, much more so than the Grand Cherokee.

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Standard was the legendary 5.0 liter Windsor V8. Making 210 horsepower and 275 lb.-ft. of torque, it was a capable power plant for the nearly 4,000 lb. SUV. A four-speed automatic was the sole transmission. EPA rated fuel economy was in the mid-teens – less than stellar, but hey it was the ’90s. A gallon of gas was cheaper than a cup of coffee!

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Rear-wheel drive and a limited-slip differential were standard, but for $2,000, one could equip their Mountaineer with a Borg-Warner developed active all-wheel drive system. Under everyday driving conditions, torque was split 65% to the rear axle and 35% to the front. Under slicker conditions, this ratio could be reversed, diverting more power to whichever axle had more traction.

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While the 1997 Mountaineer wasn’t all that different from its Ford Explorer twin, its small tweaks made it a more attractive Explorer in your author’s opinion. Badge engineering in general, was more common in the 1990s, and even more accepted and expected in the burgeoning SUV market. The good news was that 1997 would be the only year that Explorers and Mountaineers would share so much in common. The Mountaineer would receive a few more unique styling touches for 1998 – nothing significant, but a step in the right direction. The 4.0 liter Cologne V6 was also added as the standard engine to lower the Mountaineer’s entry-price a bit. Exclusive to this engine was a new five-speed automatic. This particular transmission was the first of its kind offered by an American automaker, and the Mountaineer was one of the first vehicles to receive it.

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A full redesign in 2002 would yield a much more distinctive, higher-end looking Mercury Mountaineer. With its bolder chrome waterfall grille and upswept headlights, this Mountaineer set the design language for future Mercuries such as the Milan and Mariner. The interior was also upgraded and a new 4.6 liter Modular V8 took the place of the 5.0 as the top engine.

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The Mountaineer’s final update would occur in 2006, when it received an all new chassis. Although the exterior design was essentially unchanged, its new platform provided more strength and rigidity. The interior was redesigned, moving further upmarket and offering a host of new convenience features. A more liberal use of satin aluminum trim, new fog and taillights, and monochromatic paint schemes kept the Mountaineer going until its discontinuation as part of Mercury’s phase-out.

 

Related Reading:

1998 Ford Explorer XLT V8