More stories related to Chicago Auto Show CHICAGO – Two of Ford Motor Co.’s most notorious gas-guzzlers get a little more eco-friendly and stable in the ’06 model year, thanks to a new powertrain and host of safety advancements.

The auto maker confirms its plans to fit the refreshed ’06 Mercury Mountaineer with a 6-speed transmission developed in-house and the 3-valve 4.6L V-8, much like the modular mill fitted in the ’05 Mustang.

The move boosts the fuel economy of one the of the SUVs from the current 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km) to somewhere north of 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km), Mountaineer Chief Engineer Judith Curran tells Ward’s.

The V-8 is rated at 292 hp, up from 232 hp in the outgoing 2-valve V-8.

’06 Mercury Mountaineer

The vehicle also gets an improved version of its current 4L V-6 (new cam shaft and spark plugs), which is expected to meet the stricter ULEV II (ultra low-emissions vehicle) standard in 2006 as a result.

Ford unveils the Mountaineer during the media preview portion of the Chicago Auto Show being held here at the McCormick Place. Its platform mate, the Ford Explorer, also gets refreshed in ’06 and is fitted with the more-efficient powertrain Ford officials tell Ward’s. (See related story: Ford Explorer to Find More Horses in ’06)

Improved fuel economy could help stem the sales dive Ford currently is experiencing in its profitable midsize SUV range – with sales of the Explorer and Mountaineer off 36.1% and 21%, respectively, in January vs. like-2004.

While the auto maker is holding off on divulging more information on the new Explorer until later in the year, close to the fall Job One of the refreshed ’06 models, the Mercury Mountaineer gives an indication of the direction Ford is headed with its midsize SUVs.

The Mountaineer promises to be the safest in the segment, Steve Kozak, safety engineer-North America body engineering, says, addressing another nagging concern of industry watchers and regulators concerning Ford’s truck-based SUVs.

New variable-stage airbags top the list of new features. The bags include a tether allowing for various shapes and a gas-diversion control for different levels of deployment based on the size of the occupant. Unused gas is pulled away from the bag and diverted under the dash.

Seatbelts are improved thanks to active pre-tensioners, which respond to data collected by an upgraded pre-crash computer. The middle section of the front bumper protrudes 3 ins. (7.6 cm) further than on the outgoing model in order to better cushion occupants against a head-on crash.

Much of the safety upgrade comes thanks to work done with TRW Automotive, Kozak says. Additionally, standard traction control with rollover prevention technology sourced from Continental AG is carried over to ’06.

The Mountaineer undergoes only subtle exterior tweaks, while the receives significant changes.

One significant exterior addition is a pair of running boards hidden beneath the rocker panels and deployed only when the door opens. The feature is standard on premium package models, while lower trims will get exposed running boards.

The revised exterior includes the liberal use of plastic material intended to look like brushed aluminum. Curran says the material is more durable than aluminum, less likely to be damaged and is more cost-effective.

A Ford spokesman says the plastic material also is composed of copper and zinc, giving it a metallic sound when tapped and making the material cool or hot depending on weather.

Along with an evolved grille, the Mountaineer’s face is changed by rectangular fog lamps. A set of 18-in. wheels dress the four corners of the vehicle, representing the largest standard treads ever fitted on the vehicle.

Inside, Ford designers have split the arm rest into two sections, folding the front half of the piece upward while straightening out the back in order to accommodate an arm in the most comfortable position.

Curran says the instrument panel and gauge cluster have been simplified in the Mountaineer, while the center-mounted gear shifter is lifted from Ford’s F-Series pickups.

The vehicle also carries over cues from the larger Expedition SUV, such as the front circular vents outlined in a satin aluminum finish.

One of Mercury’s proudest innovations is a rear cargo area that is the flattest in the segment due to redesigned seat folding mechanisms.

"Our customer research told us that Mountaineer needed a flat cargo floor,” Curran says.

“With the seats folded down on the previous model, there was still a rake to the floor. Customers occasionally opened the cargo door to find golf balls rolling out onto the pavement. We feel we've addressed this with the ’06 Mountaineer and a load floor that is totally flat.”

jstoll@primediabusiness.com