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Can someone please tell me why Mercury exists, other than for Wert to pine over Jill Wagner? Of course, badge engineering is alive and well outside of the blue oval — just look at the Chrysler Aspen/Dodge Durango, any GMC truck, or the Nissan Armada/Infiniti QX56 — but Mercury doesn't have a single vehicle that differs from its Ford forebears in more than name. And it's particularly evident in the Mountaineer, which looks like an Explorer, drives like an Explorer, and — in everything but name, badge, and grill — is an Explorer.

Not to fault the Explorer. It's quiet, drives well, and has a torquey V8. But one Explorer is enough for this world. For a moment I wondered if the Mountaineer was from an evil, parallel universe, but it doesn't have a beard, and the only way it tried to kill me was through sheer boredom. Either that or the frustration of trying to move through the radio spectrum by pushing the tune button for hours on end.

For those who like trucks, the Mountaineer is certainly trucky, although the step-in height is low enough that the optional power-fold running boards seem kind of silly — especially as a $695 option. It also has the requisite third-row seats that all parents seem to need these days. And the Mountaineer Explorer is at the top of the midsize SUV class; it's much better than GM's current offerings. But the Explorer, and to a point every car in this class isn't very space efficient, especially compared to a minivan. That is a rant for another day, but only the wee ones will be comfortable in the power-fold back row.

The second row seats can fold flat as well for a totally smooth load floor. And the Mountaineer is as quiet as a plane ride back from Vegas. But the interior is covered in hard plastic everywhere, and for such a large vehicle the Mountaineer doesn't have seem to be very spacious from the driver's seat.

Of course, these faults are also true of the Explorer, because, really the Mountaineer is just an Explorer with a femme grill package. At least General Motors changes the engine options on some of its badge-engineered products. Please, Ford, give Mercury a reason to live with some differentiated products, and you can start with the next Mountaineer. [by Mike Austin]