To test the prowess of the , my boyfriend Pat and I packed it up and headed for the hills of West Virginia. The Mountaineer handled the challenging mountain roads with little problem, thanks to its optional all-wheel drive (AWD), independent rear suspension, and power rack-and-pinion steering. AWD transfers torque between front and rear wheels, balancing propulsion and steering forces at each wheel for better handling. Mercury engineers biased torque 35% front and 65% rear to help cut understeer. The AWD has an open differential with a viscous coupling and a clutch pack that distributes torque based on traction needs.

The independent rear suspension is a short long-arm (SLA), coil-over-shock design, echoing that found on the Explorer and Expedition, that soaks up more lateral forces than the previous solid-axle leaf-spring configuration, according to Mercury engineers. It also increases longitudinal-force compliance, improving ride by isolating and reducing forces transmitted through the frame.

Up front, SLA with coil-over-shock replaces torsion bars. According to Mercury engineers, switching to coil springs cut steering column shake and ride harshness by letting the suspension components absorb fore and aft forces when wheels hit sharp bumps. I can confirm this after taking the Mountaineer over gravel, dirt, and potholed roads during the test-drive week with no bone-jarring impacts.

The power rack-and-pinion steering uses a modified steering linkage for a more precise feel. The SUV's turning radius, 1.7-ft shorter this year, also helped handle harrowing hairpin turns crisply. There is no sloppiness with the steering -- it's not too tight nor too loose.

Our test vehicle carried the optional 4.6-liter V8, which puts out 240 hp, 25 more horses than its 5.0-liter pushrod V8 predecessor. A 4.0-liter, 210-hp V6 is standard. The automatic five-speed transmission (same as on the Explorer) is said to carry more torque through wider gear ratios. For example, the ratio for first gear is 3.26 compared to 2.47. Also, a single aluminum transmission casting, quieter oil pump, and new planetary gears help silence NVH.

As far as interior space is concerned, the Mountaineer is no slouch. Folding the second and third-row seats opens up an 81.3-ft3 space. We quickly filled it up with a pair of mountain bikes, two coolers, luggage, a guitar, and some miscellaneous junk with room to spare. Worth noting are flared pockets on the front doors which not only handle maps beautifully, but curve out a bit at the front to accommodate 20-oz bottles. The cavernous center console held numerous CDs with no problem. A six-disc CD changer (a $690 option) kept us entertained during the long drive.

Fuel economy is predictable -- 19 mpg highway, 14 city. Base price for the AWD V8 Mountaineer is $30,610. Add options and destination charges and it jumps to $36,905. Pricey, yes, but worth it.

-- Sherri Koucky