I was born in the city
A city with no shame
And when I play guitar
They all know my name
Well, as fate would have it, they only really know my name at the local restaurant where I play lunch gigs on my Gibson CS-336. I don’t consider myself a blues man, but I will go to see the blues played when I have a chance. My plan for last week was simple: drive from Columbus, Ohio to New York City to see Robert Cray perform, and then to head down Memphis way to catch the various acts on Beale Street. Tie in an additional trip to the New York Auto Show afterwards, and we’re talking 4,100 miles and plenty of dicey parking. Might as well rent some cars and do an old-school TTAC rental review or two.
It’s been nearly a year since the last Sable rolled off the assembly line. It was a stopgap car, an attempt to rectify the most serious failings of the showroom-cobweb-holder Mercury Montego and mark time until a fully revised 2010 model could debut along the MKS and low-roof Taurus. Ford’s decision to take Mercury in the proverbial “different direction” doomed the Sable to rental-car hell and astonishingly low resale value. It’s possible to pick up a fully-loaded, low-miles Sable Premier for well south of twenty grand.
As I rolled along I-80 in Pennsylvania, the cruise control set to 82 miles per hour and the average-economy readout hovering at 27.9mpg, I had to admit that such a Sable purchase would represent a pretty decent value. It’s a nearly effortless freeway car, tracking straight and true, surprisingly indifferent to sidewinds. The seating position is seemingly about half a foot above what one would have in, say, an Audi A4, and visibility is good as well.
The Montego had a gutless three-liter Duratec and a rubber-band CVT, which probably did a lot to kill showroom excitement about what otherwise would have been seen as a decent 9/8ths-scale American knockoff of the B5 VW Passat. (Is it really a knockoff when you hire the same designer to do the same thing? Somebody should ask Gerald Genta.) This 3.5L/six-speed combination is manifestly better. It’s never strong or impressive, but it’s fast enough for modern American traffic, even in the cut-and-thrust of Manhattan’s Garment District. Hard launches spin the front wheels and bring the hammer of a very strict TCS down on the engine almost immediately. It’s not an enthusiast’s car in the traditional sense, or in any other sense.
Ford’s SYNC system was included on the car I drove, and as usual it’s just about the best way to control an iPod and Bluetooth phone together. The sound system was decent enough but lacking any sense of “dynamic attack”, “stage presence”, or any of the stuff you’d get in one of a name-brand luxury-sedan installation. A full navigation screen is an optional extra and one you’d be unlikely to find in an ex-rental.
I wasn’t more than a few hours away from Ohio when my traveling partner announced her complete lack of satisfaction with the Sable’s flat-bottomed leather seats. “They need to be good like the ones in your green car,” was the succinct evaluation. She chose instead to take a nap stretched out across the three-person back seat, wrapped up in a blanket and comforted by the Sable’s better-than-Camcord-class freeway ride. Four hundred miles later, my back was sore. These are not good seats; the ones you would get in an MKS or 2010 Taurus are miles ahead.
I believe the Autowriters’ Code of Conduct calls for me to mention the Volvo S80 at this point, along with something about ancient platforms. Truth be told, I’ve driven plenty of miles in a first-gen S80 and it’s a very different car. Both the Volvo and the Sable have that slight feeling of front-end crashiness and brittle response one gets from heavy transverse-engine platforms, but other than that it really doesn’t feel much like an S80.
It’s been a while since I resisted the temptation to run a car into the triple digits, even briefly. The Sable never even saw 90mph. It’s not an inspiring vehicle. It’s safe (allegedly), quiet, comfortable in some ways, well-equipped, spacious, and inoffensive-looking. I cannot see why anyone would pick the bloated, low-content Camry over this car, if the money is equal. Problem is, the money wasn’t equal. Ford wanted a lot of cash for the Sable.
Luckily, the used market has corrected that disparity. I turned around after Mr. Cray finished his two-hour set at B.B. King’s and drove back to Ohio. Twelve hundred miles in a day, about 27.5 mpg including time in the city. Not bad, but very far from being memorable. The next car I’d rent would be quite different.