A new chapter in the saga of Mercury's revitalization begins today with the production launch of the '01 Grand Marquis LSE, a spin-off of the brand's premier full-sized luxury vehicle.

Job One rolls off the line Feb. 12 in St. Thomas, Ont., where the Grand Marquis is assembled alongside Ford Crown Victoria.

LSE is one of two Grand Marquis spin-offs and one of five vehicles to debut at the Chicago auto show. Also bowing were '01 Grand Marquis Limited, a pair of limited edition '01 Cougars — the ZN and C2 — with significant styling and comfort enhancements, and the 300-hp '03 Marauder. The 5-passenger sedan is expected to reach showrooms in early summer 2002 to challenge Chrysler 300M and Impala SS.

Mercury's aggressive offering underscores repeated denials that the storied brand is in jeopardy.

“Mercury is alive and well,” says Lincoln-Mercury President Mark Hutchins. “I've only said that about a million times.”

Questions arose with the brand's exclusion from Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group, despite its long association with PAG member Lincoln.

About the same time, General Motors Corp. axed Olds and speculation about Mercury took on a life of its own, says brand executive Ben Gibert.

“There was nobody internal with Ford that was talking about it,” says Mr. Gibert. “There was just so much hub bub in the press, people were forced to answer a lot of questions about it.”

Mr. Gibert says his new position flies in the face of the rumors. Appointed Jan. 1, he is Mercury's first director dedicated to product development.