Driving the 2008 Mercury Sable around San Francisco, we considered painting it yellow, putting a light on top, and starting a career as a taxi driver. The Mercury Sable, brand engineered from the Ford Taurus, is a big sedan with a huge amount of trunk space. The car seems reasonably well-built, with good interior fit and finish, while its V-6 engine gives it enough power to get around. But the car offers a completely characterless driving experience, with poor powertrain response and loads of understeer. One of the key reasons we wanted to review the Mercury Sable, and its most redeeming quality, is that it came with the Sync system coupled with navigation. Previously we had tested the Sync system in the Ford Focus and had to rely on a minimal radio display for information on our connected devices, but the navigation system's LCD in the Sable formed the basis for a more usable interface.
Test the tech: iPhone compatibility
Sync and the iPhone were the two most interesting products to hit the market last year, so we put them together for our tech test to see if the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts. We hoped that using an iPhone with Sync would result in a piece of new technology so mind-blowing that we would lock ourselves in the car for a week.
With Sync, you can connect an MP3 player to a USB port in the car's console, or stream music into the system with Bluetooth. You can also pair a phone to Sync with Bluetooth and get hands-free calling, complete with voice command over your contact list. If you receive a text message on your paired phone, Sync will read the message to you over the car's speakers.
To test out the iPhone with Sync, we first used its cable to connect it to the car's USB port. Interestingly, the iPhone gave us a warning about incompatibility and suggested we put it in airplane mode. This mode disables the cell phone. We set it accordingly, then were able to get music playing by saying the artist, track, or album name. For each artist we tried, Sync recognized our verbal command and started playing the track (with the iPhone sitting in the console, tethered to the USB port).
Next, we removed the cable and paired it with the Sync system. The pairing went fine, but the phone didn't show up under the Bluetooth streaming devices screen, and we weren't able to stream any of its music through our stereo. This result didn't surprise us, as the iPhone doesn't support stereo Bluetooth streaming. But with the phone paired, we were able to make calls using the iPhone. We put it back in the console, hit the talk button on the steering wheel, requested the phone function, then said the name of a contact stored in the phone. The phone rang, and we were connected.
Finally, we sent a text message to our iPhone. When we heard no signal from the car that we had an incoming text message, we pushed the text message tab on the car's LCD. The text message screen informed us that Sync wouldn't support text messaging with the currently paired phone. We put the blame on Sync for this glitch, as it also wouldn't support text messaging with our Samsung SGH-D807.
Because the iPhone had to go into airplane mode to play music through Sync, it didn't deliver on its promise of reducing the number of devices we need to carry. When we've connected a cell phone and an MP3 player to a Sync-equipped car, the combination works perfectly. When we get a call, Sync turns off the music until the call is ended. But the iPhone doesn't let us pair it to the system and hook up the cable for music playback. In this case, we have to say that the whole is less than the sum of the parts.
In the cabin
Our 2008 Mercury Sable came in Premier trim, meaning we got leather seats and a slew of minor comfort features, including an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, heated seats, a display showing the compass direction of the car and the outside temperature, and dual zone climate control. Cabin options included power-adjustable pedals and a park distance sensor that beeped with increasing frequency whenever we reversed toward a solid object.
But our major cabin tech feature was the navigation system. We've seen this system in other Ford company cars and are generally in favor of it. It uses a touch screen and has a very usable interface for inputting addresses. Its points-of-interest database is well-populated and easy to use. We especially like that you can list places by distance or alphabetically. It also has some limited voice control, letting you input destinations by searching for points-of-interest by category in your immediate vicinity.
We've also been impressed previously how this system lets you enter multiple waypoints, putting them in the most efficient order at the touch of a button. With its route guidance, it reads out the names of streets, another advanced feature. But its graphics aren't all that attractive. Its maps are jaggy and use an ugly color scheme, while its route guidance graphics aren't overly informative. As a DVD-based system, its route calculation is a little slow.
Because we had the navigation option, we got to see how Sync uses the extra real estate available on the LCD. In the Premier-trimmed Sable, Sync comes standard along with an in-dash six-disc changer. We also had Sirius satellite radio. The disc changer plays MP3 CDs with no problem, showing track information such as album and artist. But with Sync, we had no interest in using the disc changer. CDs seemed unnecessarily bulky when we could just hook up our MP3 player and call up any track from our 30GB collection.
And while we are still entranced by the novelty of Sync's voice command, we also delved into the visual interface. A virtual button labeled Music Library on the LCD took us to a screen that let us drill down into our connected MP3 player by artist, album, genre, and playlist. In each of these categories, we could navigate a list of available music using an alphabetical keypad. This interface is very functional, and our only complaint is that its graphics are chunky and could use a better aesthetic design.
What most surprised us about the Sable's stereo, considering the unassuming nature of the car, was the bass response of its stereo. Mercury calls this stereo an audiophile sound system, meaning you get some digital signal processing controls. Looking around the cabin, we saw woofer-size speakers in each door, plus two extra speakers on the rear deck. This configuration is odd, as most automakers put woofers in each door, then supplement those with tweeters near the A-pillars. But this configuration made sense when we put in a bass-heavy track and felt the entire car shaking. We turned up the stereo and drove through the streets of San Francisco, emitting the classic thumpa-thump from our merlot-colored sedan. At this point, all we needed were 22-inch rims. Otherwise, the sound system is merely passable, with unimpressive high notes and a muddy midrange.
Under the hood
As for the 2008 Mercury Sable's powertrain, we find it odd that such a big car uses front-wheel-drive (all-wheel-drive is an option). Ford jumped onto that bandwagon with both feet. The engine is a 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 263 horsepower at 6,250RPM and 249 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500rpm, but with its six-speed automatic transmission, you will rarely get the engine turning that fast. There is no manual shift option, and it takes a while for the wheels to start turning when you push the gas pedal. With a hard stomp, we did get a little sound out of the front tires as they launched us off the line, and holding down the accelerator made the transmission hold its gears long enough to build up speed, but the car wasn't ready to leap forward at a moment's notice.
The EPA rates the fuel economy of the Sable at 18 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, but our observed average, which included city, freeway, and highway driving, stuck at 19.8 mpg. We could only imagine getting it up to 28 mpg through hours of steady driving at 50 mph, not the usual 65mph with bursts up to 80mph on today's freeways. On the plus side, the Mercury Sable, when fitted to comply with California Air Resources Board requirements, achieves a SULEV rating for emissions. A SULEV-rated car only puts one pound of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere over 100,000 miles of driving.
Our Sable came with the AdvanceTrac stability control system, along with the usual traction control and antilock brakes. Its suspension was well-tuned for damping out imperfections in the road, minimizing any jouncing. The car felt reasonably well-grounded, but we weren't inspired to put it through much hard cornering. Because of the slow throttle response, we didn't see power until the middle of a turn. Its serious understeer means you have to crank the wheel far around to handle any real twists, hampering any kind of sports driving. This isn't a car that you want to take down your favorite mountain road, but it will change lanes if you put some work into it.
The car we reviewed was a 2008 Mercury Sable Premier with front-wheel-drive, going for a base price of $27,330, including Sync and that thumpin' stereo. Our options included navigation for $1,995, AdvanceTrac stability control for $495, Sirius satellite radio for $195, and the park distance sensor for $295. Along with other sundry options and a $750 destination charge, our Sable totaled at $31,445.
For our tech rating, we give the Sable high marks for Sync, which brings in excellent Bluetooth cell phone and MP3 player integration, along with the most advanced voice recognition available today. The navigation system also helps out on its cabin tech rating, though not as much, while we don't consider the sound system particularly special. As for powertrain tech, our thumbs are down. The power arrives too slowly and the steering response is poor. We also couldn't get better than 20 mpg for our average. Its only redeeming characteristic is its emissions rating.