Ford's bid to catch up with Europe's luxury pacesetters

All right, class, what's a Merkur and how do you pronounce it? Ford Motor Company hopes tire-kickers and buyers alike will say Mair-KOOR, but a lot of them will simply end up saying Mer-ker. The word, by the way, means Mercury in German, as the car originated and is built in Germany.

No matter how it's pronounced, the Merkur, introduced Jan. 24 on the West Coast and due in the rest of the country beginning March 7, did a fine job in transporting me from coast to coast -- all 3,380 miles of it (with sand, snow, ice, and, yes, even some clear road en route).

It is a fast, even superfast car -- 0 to 60 m.p.h. in less than 8 seconds. The steering is quick and the braking very competitive with other cars in its class.

In Europe, the Merkur uses a spirited 2.8-liter V-6 engine that performs on the Autobahn along with the best. For the American version, however, Ford has adapted its 2.3-liter, in-line ``4'' with a turbocharger. The performance once again is startling, to say the least. Turbo boost begins under 2,500 r.p.m.

The test vehicle had a crisp-shifting 5-speed stick, although an automatic is available as well.

Assembled for Ford by the West German coach-building firm of Karmann, the 2-door, twin-spoilered sedan is gunning after such cars as the Audi 4000S Quattro, SAAB Turbo, BMW 318i and 325e, plus a few domestics, as it moves from the fast roads of Europe to the highways and byways of the United States.

Ford makes no secret of the fact that it is in fast pursuit of the European luxury nameplates.

Based-priced at $16,361, the car has a few high-priced options, but not many. In other words, it isn't saddled down with ``extras,'' which can jump the price by thousands of dollars, yet add far less in actual ``value'' to the car.

Also, it dispenses with gimmickry. It uses analog dials, not flashing lights, and there are no mysterious in-the-dash voices informing you that a door is ajar or telling you to fasten your seat belt.

I did, however, have trouble keeping the side windows clear of moisture, even with the heater on high.

Among the extras, the car I drove had metallic paint at $274, a gray leather interior for $890, and a tilt/slide screened ``moonroof'' at $549. The destination and delivery charge was $142 on the West Coast, for a grand total of $18,216.

I found the car did a good job in carrying me from the streets of Los Angeles to the snow of the Northeast. The problem was, I ran into snow in the Southwest as well. It was here that I would have preferred front-wheel drive to the rear drive of the Merkur. Even so, with a cautious hand on the steering wheel and a patient foot on the pedals, I got through the marginal road conditions with no mishaps, simply losing some time.

I would have enjoyed the security of 4-wheel antilock braking, a feature now available on only a few cars in the US.

Also, the car calls for higher-priced, super-unleaded fuel, although I found that regular lead-free fuel worked just fine with no pinging and no loss of power.

The US-sold Merkur, which began life as the sporty Sierra XR4i in West Germany, is hundreds of pounds heavier than its European derivative because of the addition of US-mandated bumper systems, steel door beams, emission controls, and other changes called for by law. As a result the car hits the scales at 2,950 pounds without load.

Wheels are cast alloy with Pirelli P-6 tires. Steering is power-assisted rack and pinion.

To reduce the overall noise, vibration, and harshness (what the engineers call NVH) factor in the car, Ford has made a number of fixes, including the use of hydraulic engine mounts. There is, however, a lot of vibration in the gearbox, though it wasn't noticeable under way. To feel the vibration, just rest your hand on the gearshift knob.

The Merkur represents the first time since the disastrous Edsel of the mid- and late 1950s that Ford Motor Company has launched a new car without the Ford, Lincoln, or Mercury nameplate. Ford dismisses any parallel and hopes the name alone will give a specific European mystique to the Merkur, conveying the idea of a German-engineered driver's car.

Ford also figures that most of the people interested will know -- know, that is, a lot about cars. Thus, the carmaker is training its dealership personnel to be very familiar with the car and not merely stock it on the showroom floor.

Make no mistake about it, the Merkur is a world-class car.

Looking ahead, Ford plans to bring in a complete line of cars under the Merkur name, starting with a larger, 4-door sedan in the fall.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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