When an original equipment manufacturer doesn't make a big deal about several interesting changes made to its vehicle, there has to be a good reason.

Case in point: Recently, Mercury showed its newly revised Mountaineer at the Chicago auto show, and the only aspect discussed was the new interior--the company didn't spend much time talking about the more important (and significant) changes under the hood, in the tranny box, or to the rear suspension. Regardless of the reason, there was something familiar about this 4.6-liter V-8's performance numbers--they're similar to those of the Mustang GT's V-8, which uses the new high-flow three-valve heads. Sure enough, this is the same engine offered in the Mustang GT, but, due to parasitic losses in the drivetrain, power output is slightly lower.

No matter. To be exact, the new Mountaineer (still offered in rear- and all-wheel drive) makes 292 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, up more than 50 horses from the previous two-valve-per-cylinder V-8. (Note: The Lincoln Aviator, with four-valve heads, gets 302 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque.) In addition, the Mountaineer gets a new six-speed automatic transmission that will help the 4500-pound SUV make sharper takeoffs as well as significantly improve fuel economy. Although mileage numbers haven't been released, we're told they'll be in the neighborhood of 16 mpg in the city, 21 highway. Expect this wide-ratio-spread strategy to make its way into many other Ford SUVs, then, eventually, into pickup trucks. Specifically, the gearing spread between First and Sixth (overdrive) on the six-speed is over 6.0:1 (by contrast, the ratio span in the previous five-speed transmission was 4.5:1). Mountaineers will continue to use the all-aluminum 4.0-liter SOHC V-6, which has undergone camshaft and spark-plug improvements, reported to improve emissions and NVH levels (this engine will still use the five-speed).

However, the biggest changes for the Mountaineer are in its stronger, stiffer frame, acting as a better foundation for all suspension, powertrain, steering and braking components. In addition, monotube shocks, coil springs, bigger brakes, and a unique trailing-arm setup on the rearend are designed to reduce vibration and improve driver control. The end result: a 250-pound increase in towing capacity and a 150-pound increase in payload. Better control, greater power, and more towing and payload capacity--sounds like it's headed in the right direction. This could bode well for Explorer and Sport Trac upgrades. Guess that's why Mercury didn't make a big deal about it.