2008 Mercury Sable (USA)

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I will readily admit that I am no expert in marketing and branding. Sometimes I do wonder, though, if those who are supposed to specialise in these areas are actually any better than I am. A case in point must come with the decision by the Ford Motor Company to dust off the names Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable as part of the facelift of their large US family saloons. Initially called Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego, both names which had been used in the 1960s and early 70s, these cars had been carefully distanced from the cars that they indirectly replaced, the old Taurus and Sable, And the reason for that is that once well respected large saloons had remained on sale, unchanged in anything but minor details for many years past their natural sell-by date. The rental fleets were stuffed with them, as their cheap purchase price and decent levels of reliability made them attractive to those purchasing cars to rent, but for the poor old customer, they had a terrible reputation, with many people putting phrases like “no Taurus, please” in their rental profiles. And based on my experience, not without reason, as the cars were really way below par by the middle of the first decade of the twentyfirst century. When it finally did come to replacement time, Ford hedged their bets with two model families, the larger Five Hundred and Montego pair and the smaller Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr trio respectively. The larger duo were premiered first, appearing at the 2004 Los Angeles Show and going on sale in the autumn of that year. Because the old Taurus and Sable remained in production for fleet sales, these cars did not appear in the rental fleets, so it has taken until now, 3 years after their market debut before I’ve managed to get behind the wheel of one. And by that time, the car has received a fairly significant mid-cycle facelift, with more than 500 detailed changes, aimed at improving the things which drew the greatest criticism, which was first seen at the 2007 Chicago Auto Show and made available on 2008 model year cars. It was the plusher Mercury model which I secured from Hertz’ Logan Airport (Boston) for a weekend. I was able to take it to Cape Cod and enjoy some glorious late summer weather, as the photos evidence.

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In the transition from Montego to Sable, Mercury has spent time and money trying to make the two vehicles look as dissimilar as possible, so whilst the overall shape of the car has not changed from what many said was like an enlarged Passat at its first launch, when you take into account the details, the Sable has a completely new and quite different look. Although both cars have multi-pieced brushed-aluminium waterfall grilles, the bonnet, grilles, headlamps, bumpers and intakes are completely different on the two cars, and there are differences across the rear panel as well to make the Sable as distinct from the Montego as was possible in a very short turnaround time. The new taillamps have white lenses and LED lighting, the rear quarter panels and boot lid have been redone, and the rear bumper has been redesigned with exposed dual exhaust tips. Front to back, there’s a bit more bling on the Sable than there was on the Montego, but it’s far from overdone.

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There were more significant changes under the skin as well. Most important of these was the replacement of what by all accounts had been an underpowered 3.0 litre 203 bhp engine, with a new and far more suitable 3.5 litre 24 valve 260 bhp V6, and the change from the ill-thought of CVT transmission to a better six speed automatic. As I did not get to drive the earlier version, I can’t comment on the improvement, but I can attest to what I found, which was a smooth and refined engine which seemed to have sufficient power to endow the Sable with the sort of performance that you would expect. Whilst this still not really a fast car – it is too large and heavy for even 260 bhp for that – it could acquit itself well, with bursts of acceleration when required such as when joining a freeway or to pass other cars. This part of America is quite flat, so the Sable did not have to content with the steep and lengthy inclines that you ge ton some of my favourite roads in the LA area, but I am sure it would do fine. That 6 speed gearbox proved well-matched to the engine and made changes very smoothly, with the car seemingly always in the right gear for what was required. Another change with the Sable-ification of the car was the addition of more sound-proofing, and that certainly seems to have been effective as overall noise levels were only raised if you were working the engine hard. Otherwise, it was very quiet, especially whilst cruising, and there was little intervention from the road or wind, either, meaning that long journeys were restful and peaceful.

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The test car was a front wheel drive Sable, and it drives very much as you would expect. The Taurus/Sable duo are built on Ford’s D3 platform which has its origins in the Volvo S80, and is the first front wheel drive Ford Motor Company product of this size, being almost as long in the wheel base as the still body-on-frame Crown Victoria/Grand Marquis. There is some feel to the new electrically-assisted steering, though it is configured to be on the light side, to suit American tastes and the handling felt safe and predictable, with plenty of grip and levels of understeer kept in check unless you really wanted to take a corner at imprudent speed. Push hard and there is some body roll, but this is probably not a car that you will push that hard very often. The reality is that this is not a car with any sporting pretension, so ride comfort has been prioritised over other attributes. And it certainly did ride very nicely, so coupled that with low noise levels and this was a refined cruiser that you would be happy to take on a long journey. I was relieved to discover that the brakes in this Sable are a class apart from the frankly alarming ones in the last car to bear the name. There was a nice progressive feel to the pedal with retardation starting almost as soon as you started to press the pedal, and they seemed capable of bringing the car to a halt with no fuss. There is a foot operated parking brake. All round visibility is good, with a generous glass area, and a decent field of vision from the door mirrors, so although this is quite a large car, it was still easy to place on the road and not that hard to manoeuvre.

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The interior ambience of the Sable is a massive improvement on the last car to bear its name, As well as external styling which is not unlike an enlarged Passat in silhouette, the interior suggests that Ford Motor Company took a long hard look at VW to get inspiration for the design, the choice of materials and the build quality. They seem to have pulled it off, as the materials here were good, with a mix of soft touch plastics. The very shiny wood-look inlay across the width of the dashboard is never likely to convince anyone that it really did come from a tree, but it does provide some welcome contrast from the rest of the dash moulding, and as these inlays go, was better than most. The design itself is neat, with a simple cowl covering the instrument binnacle, which, with its silver and grey colouring, comprises two large dials with smaller ones for fuel level and water temperature in the upper part of the area between then. Below them is the digital display area for the trip computer data. The cluster is a mix of dark and lighter backgrounds and the same contrast applies within the dials. There is a single column stalk, with wipers operating by twisting the end, whilst the lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the steering wheel. That leather-wrapped wheel has a number of buttons lining the edge of the spokes used for audio repeater and cruise control functions. An analogue clock is in the centre of the dash between the air vents and then below this is the audio unit which offers a CD player as well as AM/FM radio functions and an MP3 port connector. Ford launched their Sync system, a joint development with Microsoft, which offers integration with all Bluetooth-enabled phones and music players, including iPods, via electronic and USB 2.0 connections. Sync can read text messages aloud and features voice recognition for control of both phone and music functions, and phonebook transfer. It costs an extra $395 and was not fitted to the test car which had a traditional audio set-up, which was fine by me. Navigation is an option, too, but as that was not fitted this car had Hertz’ Never Lost system as a useful alternative. Beneath the audio unit are three rotary dials for the air conditioning. Automated climate control only comes in the pricier Premier trim version. The whole ensemble is neat and unfussy looking and easy to use.

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Seat upholstery was leather, with two contrasting colours used, which did much to lighten the ambience of the interior. Adjustment of the driver’s seat is power-assisted, with buttons on the side of the seat, but the front passenger seat is manually adjusted with a bar under the seat cushion and levers on the seat side for backrest rake and seat height. The steering column had a telescoping in/out as well as up/down, so it was easy to get comfortable. It does feel like you are sitting quite high in the Sable, but even so, headroom was not an issue. I did spend quite a while sitting on the seats, as the journey from Boston to Cape Cod requires you to go a long way south before you can then head north again up the Cape peninsula, so I can vouch for the comfort of the car when sitting on the seats for a few hours at a stretch.

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One thing which did not need addressing was the amount of room inside the Sable. For sure the external dimensions mean that this is a large car, a whole size above the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord and the like which the rental car companies classify as “full sized”. There is a lot of space in the back, even with the front seats set well back. There is a central tunnel, but it is relatively small, so would not really intrude much for a middle seat occupant, and the Sable is wide enough that event three well-built adults should fit across the car very comfortably. Headroom is also plentiful. There is a drop down central armrest which has cup holders in the upper surface when it is down. There are a pair of rear air vents and a 12v outlet on the rear face of the central console, a bit low down, probably to be good for face-level ventilation, but welcome nonetheless. There are map pockets on the back of the front seats and some useful bins on the rear doors.

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The boot is a good size, too, In fact, that is probably understating things It is vast. Long, deep and wide, there is ample space here for all occupants of the car to take lots of luggage with them. The floor is not completely flat, as the central area is a couple of inches lower than its immediate perimeter and there is another slight step to the outer and rear-most areas. If there is not enough space here, then the rear seat backrests can be dropped down to give a lot more load length. There is a remote release on the dash, or you will need to press the button on the key as there is no release catch on the boot lid itself. Inside the cabin, there is ample provision for space for odds and ends with bins on the doors, a reasonable sized glovebox, a deep cubby under the central armrest with a small tray in front of it and a useful lidded compartment on the top of the dash.

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The 2008 Mercury Sable is available in either front- or all-wheel drive. Two trim levels, base and uplevel Premier, are offered. The well-equipped base Sable has 17-inch wheels, full power accessories (including a power driver seat), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, wood-grain interior trim, air-conditioning, a CD player and MP3 jack, cruise control and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Move up to the Premier and you’ll get 18-inch wheels, leather upholstery, a power passenger seat, front seat heaters, a memory system for the driver seat/mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, an upgraded audio system with a six-disc CD changer, heated mirrors with puddle lamps, and an analog clock. Options include a moonroof, a navigation system, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, Sirius Satellite Radio and the “Ford Sync” system, which allows voice activation of cell phones and entertainment systems. The Sable scores strongly for its safety features which include front, side and curtain airbags, ABS, and traction control. AdvanceTrak electronic stability control is optional. With its large physical size and this standard package of safety features, the new Sable has been awarded a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and full five-star ratings from the federal government.

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Whether dusting off the Sable name was a good idea or not – and the sales figures suggest that it has made precious little difference to those of the Montego-branded version of this car – there can be no denying the fact that this is a competent machine. Consider it as a roomy, comfortable super-sized saloon and it will hit the spot pretty nicely. It most obvious rivals are the Chevrolet Impala, Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300 and Toyota Avalon, and I’ve yet to sample any of them. All bar the Toyota are in the Hertz fleet, and on my list to try, but for now I can tell you that if you were one of those people who had “no Taurus and Sable” in your rental profile, you can safely remove it, and not feel worried at all if you get allocated one of these cars.

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