Curbside Classic: 1999 Mercury Villager – It Takes A Town And Country, Not Just A Village

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Conceived under a rather unusual joint-venture between Ford and Nissan, the 1993 Mercury Villager and Nissan Quest were each automaker’s first minivans that were both front-wheel drive and sized to compete with the industry dominating Chrysler minivans. Although arguably the most chic and stylish minivans on the market at the time of their introduction, the first generation Villager and Quest lacked the space and versatility of other minivans, chiefly, the Chryslers.

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Riding on a 112.2 inch wheelbase, nearly identical to the SWB Chrysler minivans, at 189.9 inches, the first generation Villager was almost a foot longer in overall length, placing it slightly closer to the LWB “Grand” Chryslers. Despite having a closer exterior size to the LWB Chryslers, cargo capacity was closer to that of the SWB Chryslers, and rear legroom was even less than the SWB Mopars.

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Adding to the somewhat less practical nature of the Quest/Villager, only the second row seats, in either bench or bucket form, were removable. The third row bench did fold and slide forward, but could not be removed for maximum cargo space as in most competitors. Dual-rear sliding doors, pioneered by Chrysler in 1996, and soon appearing on other competitors, were never an available feature on first generation Villagers.

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The Villager also initially lacked a driver’s side air bag, a standard feature on the Chryslers, opting for the cumbersome motorized shoulder belts instead. A driver’s side airbag was added for the car’s second model year, though a passenger’s was not until 1996, two years later than the benchmark Chryslers. Mercury did have leg up when it came to anti-lock brakes, which were standard from the start of production. Regardless, aside from a 1996 cosmetic exterior facelift, changes to the first generation Villager were fairly limited over its six-year tenure.

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Nissan went ahead with redesigning the minivan, with the second generation Quest and Villager officially debuting for the 1999 model year. As before, Nissan was largely responsible for the design and engineering of the vehicle, while Ford’s contribution was primarily the physical production of the minivans, at its Ohio Assembly plant in Avon Lake, Ohio.

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Size-wise, the second generation Villager grew roughly five inches in length (on an unchanged 112.2 inch wheelbase) and one inch in width, once again placing it in between yet slightly closer to the long-wheelbase redesigned Chryslers.

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Style-wise, the second generation Villager was visually similar to its predecessor, with the glaring difference being the addition of a standard driver’s side sliding door à la Chrysler. Clearly evolutionary in is appearance progression, at least in your author’s opinion, the second generation Villager/Quest didn’t exude the same degree of dapperness as the original, looking somewhat like a melted ice sculpture of said first generation in comparison.

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Versus is predecessor, power was up to 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, courtesy of Nissan’s newer 3.3L VG33E V6. In spite of this, output was still less than rivals such as the Oldsmobile Silhouette, Honda Odyssey, and Toyota Sienna, making for less hauling power. More unfortunate, was that this engine’s cam sensors were overly prone to failure, making for some major headaches to owners.

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Although its brakes, steering, and suspension systems were nothing noteworthy for a minivan — front disc/rear drum, power-assisted rack-and-pinion, and front MacPherson struts/rear solid beam axle — the Villager generally received strong marks for its handling and maneuverability, helped by a firm steering feel and available 16-inch wheels on higher trims. Ride quality, however, was hindered by the Villager’s short wheelbase.

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As aforementioned, the Villager now included a driver’s side sliding door as standard equipment on all models, though power operation was not available as on some competitors. Ergonomics were improved over the previous generation, with the radio placed higher in the center stack and redundant controls added to the steering wheel. That being said, some controls, particularly for HVAC, were still located quite low and the numerous buttons for the available automatic climate control were small, requiring a lengthy look while driving. Fit-and-finish was nothing too praiseworthy either.

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New features included a parcel shelf in the cargo area, map pockets in the front doors, and a storage drawer under the front passenger seat similar to what was found in Chrysler minivans. Another notable feature was Travel Note, a voice memo recording system tied in with the available Homelink universal garage door opener. New seat tracks also allowed the third row bench to be moved up to five inches forward while still upright, for increased cargo room without totally losing seating capacity.

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Niceties including automatic climate control, rear HVAC, driver’s memory seat, power moonroof, digital gauge cluster display, CD player, and even a rear seat entertainment system were all available, albeit extra cost.

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As with before, the Villager’s two greatest crutches were its lack of versatility and hefty price tag when compared to most other minivans on the market. The somewhat cumbersome second row bench or buckets (depending on trim level) were removable, but once again, the third row bench could only be folded and slid forward. It could not be removed or stowed flat into the floor as with most competitors.

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Available in base, Sport, and Estate trims, the Villager did offer a few features competitors charged extra for, such as power windows, air conditioning, and later, remote keyless entry. However, minivans in comparable trim levels from competitors including the Chryslers, Ford’s own Windstar, and even the Honda Odyssey all cost less money and offered significantly more interior room.

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The other potential turn-off to family buyers was the Villager’s lack of standard and available safety features. Anti-lock brakes were no longer standard, costing buyers nearly $600 extra. Other features offered on competitors, including traction control, side-impact airbags, and an occupant-sensing front airbag were not even available on the Villager.

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In the end, the Mercury Villager failed at ever gaining widespread success in the minivan segment. While its interior space was comparable to Chrysler’s short-wheelbase minivans, its prices were higher than most extended-wheelbase minivans, and the Villager fell short when it came to making this price premium worth while for most buyers. Not even the Rugrats’ stamp of approval could save it.

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Whereas the first generation at least carved out a small niche as the fashionable minivan for those willing to sacrifice practicality in the name of style, the second generation Villager offered little in the way of noteworthiness, cementing its also-ran status. Although the first generation Villager managed to sell a reasonable 55,000+ units annually in most years, second generation Villager sales topped out at 45,315 units in 1999, and steadily declined to 16,442 by 2002.

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Meanwhile, in 1999 alone, the Dodge Caravan sold 293,100 units, the Ford Windstar sold 213,884 units, the Plymouth Voyager sold 138,644 examples, the Toyota Sienna sold 98,809, the Honda Odyssey sold 78,802, and the Chrysler Town & Country even sold 71,957 units, its lowest sales year over the 1999-2002 period. With the nearly identical Quest selling equally poorly and Nissan pulling out of the joint-venture in favor of producing a new, larger Quest on its own, the Villager quietly ended production in 2002, with little marking the occasion.

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By this point, it would seem the plausible thing for Ford to do was just give Mercury a rebadged version of the Windstar to sell. Surely it would have fared better? The answer to that question soon arrived in the form of the badge-engineered Freestar twin, the Mercury Monterey, which ultimately was an astounding “no”.

Related Reading:

2004-2007 Mercury Monterey

1993-2002 Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager (Automotive History)

1996-2000 Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager (Automotive History)