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A senior moment

At a time of general excellence in automotive design and construction, when even cheap cars so easily vault buyer expectations, it is a rare and perverse pleasure to find a car as certifiably doggy as the Mercury Montego.

A car whose lack of charisma is so dense no light can escape its surface, the Montego is the Mercury Division’s upscale twin to the Ford Five Hundred sedan, though the Montego’s version of upscale is of the Korean off-shore casino variety. The faux wood-grain interior trim looks like it came off a prison lunch tray. I’ve felt better leather upholstery on footballs.

But this is not a case of a car nibbled to death by details. Overall, the car has a profoundly geriatric feeling about it, like it was built with a swollen prostate. To drive this car is to feel the icy hand of death upon you, or at least the icy hand of Hertz, because it simply screams rental.

On paper, the Montego has much to recommend it, which would be fine if cars were made of paper. A large four-door, five-seat car -- cut generously in the seat, you might say -- the Montego has an enormous 21-cubic-foot trunk. So right there it has cornered the traveling-carpet-salesman market. Built on a corporate vehicle platform shared with Volvo, the Montego and its blue-badged sibling Five-Hundred are available with all-wheel-drive. Our test car, a premium model with AWD, was equipped with a continuously variable transmission, a type of fuel-saving gearless transmission that optimizes the engine speed for maximum torque during hard acceleration and slips into overdrive when demands lessen. Front-drive models come with a six-speed automatic.

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The premium package draws heavily from Ford’s larder of convenience items, including an eight-way, power-adjustable driver seat and four-way adjustable front-passenger seat (both heated); Xenon headlights; heated outside mirrors; two-position memorized settings for seats, mirrors and the adjustable pedals; and a full suite of power accessories. Missing in action are options for a navigation system and stability control.

It’s abundant on paper. As a presence in steel and glass, the Montego inflicts a gnawing sense of privation upon the driver. There is no soul to this car, and it’s about as sexy as going through your mother’s underwear drawer. Except for those who need the oversized trunk to carry their assisted-mobility scooters, few could prefer this car to its Asian rivals such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord V6 or Nissan Maxima, never mind the products with upscale badges like Lexus and Acura hovering in the $30,000 range.

The trouble lies with the car’s engine, a clattery 3.0-liter V6 whose output of 203 horsepower is smothered by the car’s two-ton curb weight. Ordinarily, this power-to-weight ratio would not be out of bounds, but Montego’s AWD package is bundled with a torque-swallowing CVT transmission, making the car logy from a standing start and cruelly slow in passing situations.

This torpor has a soundtrack. When you mash the gas the powertrain moans as if you were raising dear departed Uncle Sal at a seance.

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The power train’s lack of refinement so penetrates the driving experience that it is hard to give the car a fair shake. It is not, after all, a bad-looking car, though I prefer the more understated look of the Five Hundred to that of the Montego, which has a face like Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel. The interior design is handsomely spare, balanced and geometric. With its tasteful chrome bezel gauge cluster, the instrument display is spot on; the steering wheel switches (audio and cruise control) are well organized and substantial feeling.

But what’s the deal with the center stack controls? As I sit here now I cannot think of any designed product that is as awesomely cheap-looking as the audio and climate controls in this car. The stereo controls comprise a big, ugly flank of black plastic with a green LED display in the middle. It reminds me of the ham radio kits I put together in high school. These controls are risible enough in the Ford F-150 pickup, but here, in a “premium” automobile, they are quite unforgivable. Ford owns Volvo and Mazda, two companies that do a fine job with instrumentation design. Can Ford’s guys get the notes from somebody in class?

The car’s cushiony ride comes at the cost of any backbone in the handling department. Significant body roll accumulates in corners, and the car has a front-driver’s pushiness. It was hard to feel any handling benefits from the AWD system. The powertrain functions like that of a front-drive car until significant slip occurs at the front wheels. Then a mechanical differential distributes power to the rear wheels. I will have to take Ford’s word for it.

Over and over, it’s a car that fumbles the fundamentals. The seats, for example. They are, first of all, big and flat and unsupportive, so that despite eight ways to adjust it, the driver’s seat never gets comfortable. Meanwhile, this car was designed as a kind of sedan qua SUV, offering drivers the high seating position and commanding sightlines of a sport-utility while retaining the virtues of a sedan. If you see one of these in a parking deck you will notice its roof crests a couple inches higher than those of the cars around it.

I have my doubts about this SUV-seating idea even in theory. In practice, the seat’s raised H point (hip point) puts the driver in an awkwardly elevated position so that you never feel quite like you are sitting in the car so much as sitting on it. The seat itself feels like one of those extra-high hospital toilets. Where is the nurse call button?

These cars -- the Five Hundred and the Montego -- are intended to be mainstream, high-volume products that will supplant the Taurus/Sable twins, which remain in production at the moment. My question: Has Ford ever seen the competition? They are gorillas and these cars are organ-grinder monkeys with little hats. I’m trying to imagine the family-sedan buyer making his way down Glendale’s Brand Boulevard, test-driving cars as he goes, and alighting on the Montego. I’m still trying.

Ford has had an amazing year. The new Mustang. The Ford GT. Superb redesigns of the Focus and F-150 families. Who would have thought the mid-size sedan project would be so elusive? With all of Ford’s global resources, the most valuable of all is its collective judgment. As for the Montego, I don’t understand how this lamentable rentable got out of the barn.

*

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2005 Mercury Montego Premier AWD

Base price: $28,245

Price as tested: $29,490

Powertrain: 3.0-liter V6, dual-overhead cams; continuously variable transmission; all-wheel drive with limited-slip front differential and mechanical center differential.

Horsepower: 203 at 5,750 rpm

Torque: 207 pound-feet at 4,700 rpm

Curb weight: 3,930 pounds

0-60 mph: 9 seconds

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Wheelbase: 112.9 inches

Overall length: 200.4 inches

EPA mileage: 20 miles per gallon city, 27 highway

Final thoughts: Hipster-proof

Automotive critic Dan Neil

can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.


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