(first posted 8/29/2015) For two generations, Mercury offered the Villager minivan. A joint development with Nissan, who offered the near-identical Quest, the Villager soon found itself to be one of the smallest and least versatile offerings in a segment full of larger and larger minivans. For its third-generation Quest, Nissan severed ties with Ford and developed a larger model on the FF-L platform shared with Altima and Maxima. Lincoln-Mercury dealers were thus left without a minivan, but for 2004 they would receive one: the Monterey.
The Monterey was simply a Ford Freestar with different trim, such as a unique grille, analog clock and revised taillights, and a longer features list that included the rare-for-a-minivan availability of ventilated seats. The Monterey name was resurrected after three decades; previously, it had been used on full-size Mercury sedans.
Although the “all-new” vans still looked quite similar to the defunct Windstar, the interior was quite different. Ford had moved away from its swoopy dashboards used in the 1990s, and the new corporate look consisted off squared-off dashboards with neatly-arranged switchgear. Safety had been made a priority, and all three rows of the Monterey had curtain airbags.
During the 2000s, the Japanese were dominating the mainstream horsepower wars. Domestic automakers were left behind, offering aging engines like the Chrysler 2.7, Duratec V6 and Buick 3800, while offering more modern and powerful engines merely class-competitive in output as upgrade engines. The Monterey received the “upgrade” 4.2 V6 from the Freestar, omitting the lesser 3.9 V6. Both engines were descended from Ford’s long-lived Essex V6, but even the large-displacement 4.2 mustered only 201 hp and 263 ft-lbs. Fortunately, the 4.2 was sufficiently torquey down low: enough for the kind of driving generally done in a minivan. Where it fell down compared to rivals was in fuel economy, with an EPA-rated 17/23 mpg. Handling was also cumbersome, with an excessively-large turning circle and dynamics referred to by some critics as “barge-like”.
Ford had been touting its Freestar/Monterey as “all-new” minivans, and certainly there were meaningful engine, suspension and NVH improvements, but really they were just heavily revised editions of the Windstar. The same flaws remained, like inferior packaging: the vans were simply less spacious inside than rivals, with second-row seats that lacked sliding tracks and a third row that didn’t split. At least the latter folded flat, unlike in the Windstar. There were also omissions from the features list: stability control was only an option and satellite navigation was never available.
The revisions couldn’t reverse a sales slide. Freestar sales declined precipitously, while the Monterey never took off. Even the Buick Terraza outsold Mercury’s minivan each year, and sales volume was well short of the figures the too-small Villager had been achieving just a few years prior. Demand for minivans had very much cooled by the 2000s, and GM decided to exit the segment entirely. Ford would do the same after 2007: its namesake division would field three separate three-row crossovers in the next few years. Mercury wasn’t as lucky, stuck with only the Mountaineer truck. A few years later, the whole division was axed.
The Monterey was a typical badge-engineering effort to give Lincoln-Mercury dealers a wider lineup to sell. Ford had been swapping badges for years, so the Monterey was no more cynical than a Lynx or a Tracer. What was most frustrating about the Monterey can also be said about the nearly identical Freestar: it just wasn’t as good as its rivals. Ford spent money revising the Windstar inside and out and fine-tuning its dynamics, but they were still left with a minivan with below average versatility. At the end of the day, that was the Monterey’s biggest flaw.