Curbside Classic: 1996-99 Mercury Sable – A Messenger Carrying An Illegible Message

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Has there ever been an American brand as enduringly ill-defined as Mercury? A non-existent brand identity and a seemingly nebulous mission left the messenger brand as a misfit in the Ford corporate stable, especially by the 1990s. The third-generation Sable was yet another misdirected Mercury.

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White Sable photos courtesy of Brendan Saur

By the 1990s, other problem marques had determined their missions: Oldsmobile had established itself as a division of import fighters and moribund Plymouth was the bargain basement brand for DaimlerChrysler. The 1996 Sable was appreciably differentiated visually from the related Ford – more than can be said for most Mercury cars over the years – but it took the Sable in an entirely new design direction that didn’t mesh with the rest of the brand. But underneath this different sheetmetal, it was pure Taurus. 

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Mercury was ostensibly a more premium brand than Ford, but did Ford only offer the optional, new Duratec engine? No, they offered the aging Vulcan as the base engine with the Duratec as an option. Did the Mercury offer any unique features? No, the range-topping Sable LS was just as well-equipped as a Taurus LX. Was there a plusher interior? Again, no, the interior was virtually identical to the Taurus but for some available woodgrain appliqués. The Sable even offered a price-leader G version like the Taurus, to help soften the blow of this generation’s price increase.

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The exterior styling was somewhat similar up front, except with the driving and parking lights grouped in the same assembly vis-à-vis the Taurus’ quad-light setup. The sedan’s roofline was different, with a more formal-looking C-pillar despite previous Sables featuring a rakish C-pillar with a wraparound rear window treatment.

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The ’96 Sable’s rear window was larger and rectangular in shape, instead of the Taurus’ oval window, while the taillights were thin, wide rectangular units. A bulbous rear bumper completed the look of the rear, which was even more eccentric in appearance then the Taurus. As for the wagon, it was identical to the Taurus wagon from the A-pillar back, right down to the ovoid rear quarter and tailgate windows.

The Taurus had proved to be too ambitiously styled for this conservative segment and the price hikes didn’t help sales; Accord and Camry sales were also growing. Taurus would lose the sales crown after 1996 and a significant chunk of the roughly 400k annual units produced went to fleets.

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So began the cost-cutting. As the Taurus Car Club of America diligently records, various items were dropped for the third generation’s sophomore season. High-end Taurus and Sable variants lost their 4-way headrests and chrome exhaust tips. The sedans switched to rear drums from standard discs. Passenger seat power lumbar was also axed, heated mirrors shifted to the options list, and there were no longer front door courtesy lamps or indicators for low washer fluid or broken rear lamps. Door trim panels now had exposed screws and the Mercury logo on the Sable’s grille was no longer illuminated. For 1999, even more cost-cutting was evident as Ford’s intermediates lost footwell lighting, glove compartment lights, rear speaker grilles and even the tinted band across their front windshields.

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What had started off as a controversially designed but quite high-quality interior had been nickel-and-dimed to mediocrity, although it was still much nicer than most of GM’s mid-size offerings’ interiors, especially the hideous cabin of the Chevy Lumina. The DN101 team helmed by Dick Landgraff had picked apart Camry and Accord and implemented so many of their neat features and details. By the end of the third-generation’s run, so many of these surprise-and-delight features were gone. 

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Although fleet/private sales breakdowns aren’t available for this generation of Sable, it’s interesting to note annual production stayed consistent throughout its run: around 110k units produced each year, similar to the previous generation. Sable models were generally priced $500-$1000 above the equivalent Taurus.

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The 2000 Taurus and Sable would feature a more conservative and elegant design inside and out. Unfortunately, sales declined and Ford implemented yet more cost-cutting. The Sable was axed in 2005, replaced by the smaller Milan and larger Montego.

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But for waterfall grilles and different fake wood, these Sable successors – as well as the Montego’s successor that wore the resurrected Sable nameplate – never sought to put much space between the Mercury and its Ford equivalent. Was the Mercury brand incapable of selling at a higher price point as some kind of step-up like GMC’s Denali sub-brand? Would Lincoln have been threatened?

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From 1938 until 2011, Mercury had an ill-defined mission on this earth. The ’96-99 Sable, in sedan guise at least, was visually quite different from its related Ford. But who was it aimed at? What was Mercury about? Perhaps Ford executives’ presentations spoke of the average Sable buyer being more affluent and educated than a Taurus buyer. And yet, Mercury didn’t bother to make any real specification differentiation or make any effort to position and price this as a more premium offering. Despite this, they also didn’t settle for the cheap-and-easy badge engineering employed by Chrysler with its Plymouth brand, and actually invested in unique sheetmetal.

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The more one looks at this Sable, the more questions arise. Mercury has been dead for a few years now and it seems as though everyone has forgotten. Ford happily offers (and sells) Explorer Platinums and Fusion Titaniums that actually offer more features than their cheaper brethren. Lincoln has expanded and seems to be finding some success as a near-luxury brand. After just a few years, it seems almost puzzling that Mercury ever existed and for so long. Mercury’s tagline during the third-generation Sable’s run was “Imagine yourself in a Mercury”. Post-mortem, the tagline should be, “Imagine a world with Mercury”. It’s hard, isn’t it?

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Curbside Classic: 1999 Plymouth Breeze

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