PROVO, Utah -- A blacktop lot on the campus of Brigham Young University serves as a wiggly autocross course defined by orange plastic pylons to test the tire-screeching dexterity of a new rendition of Mountaineer, the mid-size SUV by Mercury and the Lincoln-Mercury Division of Ford Motor Company.
Steer a lumbering sport-ute around an autocross route customarily reserved for agile sports cars?
Well, it's not an exercise recommended for the usual body-on-frame SUV, but Mountaineer of 2006 is not the typical sport-utility box.
It acts downright agile.
Mountaineer's all-terrain tires -- working through the active Control Trac four-wheel-drive (4WD) traction mechanism -- stick with a confidence-inspiring grip as the vehicle demonstrates its dexterity in zipping through all of the tight cone-lined corners.
The SUV has a new tube-through-tube frame that's stronger and far less flexible than the chassis on the previous version, plus a suspension system rarely found on a truck -- there are independent components suspending the rear wheels as well as the front ones.
These structural changes to chassis and suspension dramatically affect the wagon's ride and handling traits.
It feels smooth and settled now like it's a part of the road and, when pitched into the face of a hard corner, Mountaineer reacts with a flat stance as the body doesn't roll much in a dangerous tip to one side.
Such agility means a driver ends up with more control over the vehicle, and that ultimately translates to an important defense mechanism for safe motoring.
Also, the tail of the vehicle settles now when it passes over bumpy pavement so it maintains a smooth and comfortable ride quality.The 2006 issues of Mountaineer show fresh sheetmetal styling on the outside, a revamped cabin inside with room for three rows of seats, new powertrain selections below the hood and more on-board amenities, such as power-controlled running boards tucked into rocker panels.
Keen styling outside features a bold face with Mercury's signature waterfall grille, the center section of the bumper in satin aluminum finish and fascia fitted with rectangular foglamps.
Flanks look flat, save for subtle ripples around the wheelwells, while at the squared-off rump there's a redesigned liftgate tucked between clear taillamp lenses and the low bumper scored with a strip of satin aluminum.
Inside, the spacious cabin reveals new decorative trimwork, a revised instrument panel with stylish gauges, and firm bucket seats on the front row.
Revamped seats include benches on second and third rows which fold down to form a flat cargo floor.
That second bench divides 60/40 in sections, while the back one splits equally in half.
Optional PowerFold controls on Row 3 bring a push-button device to drop seatbacks flat against the floor.
Premium cloth fabric is the standard with soft two-tone leather upholstery as an option.
Issues of personal safety are addressed with strong structural elements and energy-absorbing crush zones front and rear plus a variety of safety systems aboard.
All trim versions contain dual-stage frontal air bags for front riders plus side-impact air bags.
Mountaineer also offers roll-over protection via Ford's Safety Canopy curtain-style side air bags for first and second rows that will deploy if on-board sensors detect roll-over movement of the vehicle.
Gear promoting active safety includes a fast rack and pinion steering mechanism and standard four-wheel disc brakes, an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and Ford's AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control (RSC) anti-skid equipment.
Mountaineer comes in two-wheel-drive (2WD) and 4WD versions with equipment increasing through trim designations of Convenience, Luxury and Premier.
The optional 4WD Control Trac system also relates to safety, as the mechanism has an automatic mode that monitors grip for all wheels and can selectively distribute traction between front and rear wheels to maintain tire bite on slippery pavement.
Push-button controls allow the driver to lock the system in high or low range of 4WD for off-road travel.
Powertrain upgrades work on the 2006 Mountaineer.
The standard engine, a 4.0-liter single-cam V6, gets a new camshaft and variable valve timing plus improved emission controls to achieve ULEV II status.
It generates 210 hp at 5100 rpm with the torque dispersed across the range of engine speeds up to 254 lb-ft at 3700 rpm.
Tied to the V6 is a five-speed automatic which uses adaptive shift logic through electronic controls.
The optional engine, a new aluminum V8 in single-cam design with 4.6-liter displacement and three valves per cylinder, delivers 292 hp at 5750 rpm plus tall torque of 300 lb-ft at 4750 rpm.
The V8 mates exclusively with a new six-speed electronic automatic which improves fuel economy figures and raises Mountaineer's trailer towing capacity to 7240 pounds.
Mountaineer in base trim stocks the V6 engine only but also a lot of standard equipment.
The gear includes foglamps in the fascia and black rails on the roof, AdvanceTrac anti-skid controller, a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), cabin air conditioning and power controls for windows and locks and mirrors, keyless entry device, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with speed controls, rear window intermittent wiper with washer and defroster, and an audio kit with CD player.
Mountaineer Luxury with choice of V6 or V8 engine adds more equipment like color-keyed running boards, an electrochromic rearview mirror and deluxe sound system, which Mountaineer Premier carries the V8 exclusively.
Options extend to a navigation system, quad-style captain's chairs, a video entertainment system, Sirius satellite radio, a moonroof and the Safety Canopy.
Prices begin at $29,150 for Mountaineer Convenience with the V6 engine and 2WD traction.