Ozzie and Harriet won.
The proof is in the 2000 Mercury Sable LS Premium sedan. It's a huge retreat from the radical sheet metal of its predecessor.
There are no swoops, no ovals, no slanted tail with skinny back lights. The interior is absent anything artsy, New Age, in-your-face. Instead, there is a commonplace hooded instrument panel and a center console bedecked with fake wood grain.
Even the new interior door handles are normal. They are easily reachable chrome-plated, L-shaped things, as opposed to the interesting but hard-to-grasp elliptical loops in the previous Sable.
It is traditional, Middle America stuff. Don't weep. It sells. That's why Jacques Nasser did it.
Nasser is president and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co. He's a stylish fellow. But he's no fool.
Nasser knows not to sell Savile Row suits and Patek Phillipe watches in a community that favors Sears and Timex. So he pulled the reins on the designers who rendered the now-defunct avant-garde Sable.
There was no hostility. It's just that the old Sable's more-modern-than-thou styling cost sales. "It was polarizing," said a Ford marketing executive. "This is supposed to be a mass-market car. We needed something less polarizing."
Some numbers show the problem. U.S. Sable sales fell 10.7 percent last year, dropping to 100,367 cars from the 112,400 sold in 1997.
Sales of the Sable's mechanical and structural twin, the Ford Taurus, rose 3.9 percent, to 371,074 cars from 357,162--a modest increase largely aided by discounts, sales incentives and fleet sales.
Thus, fancy and modern are out for Ford's mass-market mid-size family sedans. Ozzie and Harriet--that idealized middle-class TV couple of the 1950s--are in.
This is not a bad thing. It's business. You can hook more fish mainstream, with the right kind of bait. That is why Ford made the new Sable attractive beyond appearance.
For example, the Sable is as safe as a Volvo S70 sedan for about $6,000 to $12,000 less. It is equipped with dual-stage front air bags designed to deploy quickly or slowly, depending on crash severity. Side air bags are available.
All new Sables come with power-adjustable accelerator and brake pedals. That means short people can sit a safe distance away from air-bag-packed steering wheels without straining to reach the pedals.
There's more, including locking head restraints to help prevent whiplash, automatically tensioning seat belts, and rear-seat anchors to more securely hold child-safety seats in place.
The new Sable's headlamps burn 20 percent brighter than they did on predecessor cars, an improvement that better helps to light the way for drivers without blinding oncoming motorists.
And there also is a glowing emergency internal trunk-release lever that can be operated by a child or adult who gets locked in the trunk. Hey, stuff happens, even in Pleasantville.
Nuts & Bolts
2000 Mercury Sable LS Premium Sedan
Complaints: The test car's V-6 engine developed hoarse-power midway through the test week. It began rasping and wheezing, especially when accelerating moments after ignition. The hoarseness disappeared when the engine warmed up--but it would return, sometimes with a slight smell of gasoline vapor, when the car was started after it had been parked an hour or longer.
Praise: The new Sable does better than its predecessor in seating five people. With a cargo volume of 16 cubic feet, and more accessible because the trunk is wider, it also does better carrying their luggage.
Ride, acceleration and handling: A triumvirate of competence. The ride is comfortable. You can change lanes and enter expressways quickly and safely. The front-wheel-drive car moves into and out of curves with minimum body sway.
Head-turning quotient: It's the rebirth of the suburban aesthetic--anonymous, inoffensive and designed to stay that way.
Engines: The test car came with Ford's 3-liter, 24-valve Duratec V-6, designed to produce 200 horsepower at 5,650 rpm and 200 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. A 155-horsepower 3-liter V-6 is standard. Fuel capacity is 16 gallons--premium unleaded recommended for the Duratec.
Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving.
Sound system: Optional Mach system: 80 watts, six speakers, vehicle-specific equalizer, external amplifier and six-disc CD changer. "Go Ozzie, go Ozzie. . . ." Major boogie.
Price: The test car's base price is $21,245. Dealer's invoice on base model is $19,313. Price as tested is $23,281, including $320 for the Mach sound system, $550 destination charge, and about $1,166 in taxes and fees.
Purse-strings note: Excellent value.