Surprise! Mercury Monday is back, mostly because we remembered a fantastic Mercury that deserves some recognition. Unlike the Capri, Villager Nautica, or Bobcat we’ve previously detailed, you couldn’t buy this Mercury. However, you’ve probably experienced something that came from it. Welcome to the Mercury Sable AIV, one of the coolest small-batch prototypes of the ’90s.
Picture this: It’s the early 1990s. The Cold War is over, Richard Karn is holding Tim Allen’s ego down, some kids from France are about to become the most iconic electronic music duo of all time, and the push toward the year 2000 looks bright if you aren’t in computing. After years of making car bodies out of steel, Ford decided it was time for a change. Fuel economy standards were set to rise and the glimmer of the new millennium was on the horizon. It was time to experiment with aluminum, and Ford had the perfect base to test with – the Mercury Sable.
Alright, so a humdrum midsize sedan typically powered by a dreary pushrod V6 may seem like an odd base for a technology testbed, but you have to remember that the Mercury Sable and its Ford Taurus twin were moving serious volume at the time. If Ford could build a version of its most popular passenger car out of high-tech non-ferrous metal, it would be an approachable image of the future of the everyday car. Keep in mind that when Ford was developing this thing, the first word in aluminum production vehicles was the Acura NSX, a very expensive sports car that shared virtually nothing with the Civics and Accords Americans were used to. However, like the NSX, this special Sable would feature a three-letter initialism – AIV for Aluminum Intensive Vehicle.
Building the Sable AIV was unlike anything Ford had done before. Stamped aluminum panels were spot-welded and bonded together to create a unibody so light, two people could pick it up. What’s more, Ford used aluminum in everything from the wheels to the engine, ditching the Vulcan V6 in favor of the Ford Taurus SHO’s all-aluminum Yamaha V6. In case you’re too young to remember the second-generation Taurus SHO, this thing was an absolute terror. In an era when the Fox Body Ford Mustang GT made 205 horsepower, the Taurus SHO made 220 horses, temporarily making it the most powerful new Ford car on sale. Although not as quick as a Mustang GT, the SHO still blitzed from zero-to-60 in less than seven seconds, quick enough to keep up with a BMW 535i. Plus, that Yamaha V6 revved to 7,300 RPM, and more revs generally works out to more fun.
If the Taurus SHO was a beast, Mercury’s aluminum body program spawned an apex predator of a midsize sedan. The Sable AIV weighed 400 pounds less than a comparable Taurus SHO and had all of the ponies, meaning that although Ford didn’t publish a zero-to-60 time for the Mercury Sable AIV, there’s a chance that it might’ve been the quickest factory-produced automatic DN5-platform car Ford ever made. However, performance wasn’t the big goal of the Sable AIV. Ford was mainly on the hunt for better fuel economy and fewer emissions, simply due to having less mass to shove down the road. In theory, if Mercury had made a manual Sable AIV, it would’ve weighed less than 3,000 pounds. That’s a seriously impressive figure for a car that can carry five people in comfort and wipe the smirk clean off a BMW-driving yuppie’s thin, well-moisturized face.
Of course, as the Sable AIV was a technological study, Ford only built 40 of them. Nineteen were sacrificed to the gods of vehicle development, one was turned into the weirdly uninspiring Ford Synthesis 2010 concept car, and the other half were leased out as research vehicles. One was even put on the track for the 1995 One Lap of America. It finished 15th out of 85, just behind a Renntech 6.0 Mercedes-Benz W124 and ahead of a Nissan 300ZX Turbo, a BMW M1, and a couple of Toyota Supras. Now that’s a fearsome result for a midsize sedan.
Still, fuel economy was the main reason for the Sable AIV’s existence, and an Automotive News story suggests that the Sable AIV may have achieved its goal. According to the article:
Researchers were unable to determine exactly how much better fuel economy the Sable AIV delivered compared with the standard Sable. Ford never made a regular production Sable with the SHO engine. But one Argonne staff member owned a Taurus SHO. The fuel economy of the Sable AIV was about 22 percent higher.
Weirdly, Ford didn’t seem to have a set trial period for the Mercury Sable AIV. Some road-going examples stuck around forever, partly thanks to aluminum’s inability to rust. Here in Ontario, pretty much all second-generation Mercury Sables had been turned into Maytags by 2008 or so, but a handful of these AIVs were still out there as of the 2010s. One person even discovered a Sable AIV with 276,000 kilometers on the clock in a disused building in 2018. Although certain steel brackets in the engine bay look worse for wear, the body looks pretty great. In addition, a user on Ford Forums claims to have somehow purchased a Sable AIV last year with 360,000 kilometers on the clock. Perhaps a handful more are still out there.
While Ford never put the Sable AIV into mass production, the use of aluminum soon spread to just about every marque to come under Ford’s umbrella. Jaguar made an aluminum XJ, Land Rover makes the Range Rover out of aluminum, Aston Martin’s 21st-century renaissance was built around the aluminum VH platform, every full-size Ford truck and SUV now features an aluminum body, as does the Lincoln Navigator. Even Volvo started using more aluminum in certain components after it came under Ford’s ownership. It’s incredibly weird to think that two of the most beautiful modern cars, the Aston Martin DB9 and Jaguar F-Type, can trace at least some history to a Mercury Sable, but the twists of history often spin a tale stranger than any fiction.
These days, there isn’t much talk about reducing vehicle weight, even though it comes with a whole host of benefits. Less weight often results in improved fuel economy and less wear on tires, which is good for the air and the environment. It can also make for quicker cars, and almost always results in vehicles that can brake in a shorter distance than cars that have been on the pies. Plus, there’s joy in lighter cars. Throw two or three passengers in your car and you’ll find its reflexes are dulled, like trying to play a game of soccer after seven or eight Stellas. Whether aluminum or carbon fiber or magnesium, it’s time for lightweighting to make a comeback. Not only could it help offset the gargantuan weight of lithium-ion battery packs, advancements in materials and mass adoption should drive costs down, eventually making everything a bit more fun.
(Photo credits: Ford, Aston Martin)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
The Third-Gen Mercury Capri Was Like The Miata If No One Really Gave A Shit About The Miata: Mercury Monday
The Mercury Villager Nautica Always Reminded Me Of This Particular Shoe: Mercury Monday
The Mercury Bobcat Was A Lesson In The Barest Definition Of Luxury: Mercury Monday (On Friday!)
Mercury Monday: The Mercury Named For LA’s Junkyard Town And With A View Of Heaven
Mercury Monday: The Mercury Cougars Of The 1980s Are The Fox Bodies Everyone Forgot About
Got a hot tip? Send it to us here. Or check out the stories on our homepage.
“the Fox Body Ford Mustang GT made 205 horsepower”
Fox body GT made 225 HP by then. The SHO was not the most powerful Ford car at the time. The Mustang GT beat it by 5 HP.
In ’93 Ford “re-rated” the standard 5.0L in the GT/LX to 205 HP. Over the years since the rating was established (’87) Ford had made various tweaks that reduced peak power, they claimed the update was due to new pistons, but I’d be willing to bet that part of the de-rating was also due to the introduction of the Cobra, rated @ 235HP. Also, in ’94 the new SN-95 was rated at 215HP through ’97, So, while the article is still incorrect, since the ’93-on Cobra WAS more powerful, the family sedan did have more peak HP than a V8 Mustang GT for a few years.
We needed this lightweight construction method and engine in a car with the Ford Probe V’s aerodynamics. Imagine the fuel efficiency possible… along with the hoonage possible… in the same car…
As the owner of a 220hp K20a swapped all-aluminum 1st gen Honda Insight I can personally affirm that low weight + hp = fun.
And the low drag helps more as the speed climbs.
My great grandfather had a 1931 Marmon 16:
The 1931 Marmon Sixteen had an overhead-valve, 45-degree engine with a displacement of 491 cubic inches. With 200 horsepower, it car was able to achieve an effortless 100 mph. Overhead valves were pushrod-operated, a two-barrel carburetor fed crossflow alloy cylinder heads, and the block had wet cylinder liners. The engine construction was from aluminum and much of the chassis and bodywork used the same material, giving the Sixteen an unmatched power-to-weight ratio.
So the Mercury, while cool, was 60 years late to the party.
Dude! Marmons are seriously under-rated cars. Does your great-grandfather’s still exist?
Besides systems involving computers and materials that hadn’t been invented yet I believe every major mechanical refinement to piston engines had been invented by WWII. If not in cars in planes or on steam engines.
I actually saw one of these once driving around Houston back in the late 90s. I never knew what it was but assumed someone had just stuck SHO parts on a Mercury, but that distinct grill is hard to forget. Pretty cool!
Range Rover’s use of aluminum is kind of a special case. Rangies weren’t all-aluminum until the 2012 model year; the previous 2001 generation had a steel unibody structure but still some (I believe) aluminum outer panels.
Land Rover and aluminum have an interesting history; the original boxy Jeep-inspired Land Rovers initially used aluminum panels on a steel inner structure on a steel frame; the aluminum was used originally because steel was paradoxically more scarce and more expensive in the postwar UK. Of course, it became clear that the partial aluminum construction was lighter it was kept for that benefit.
The original Range Rover then took it to another level, where the vehicle was still body-on-frame construction, but the body itself was a rigid steel inner space-frame, completely self-supporting but very light, and then the roof, doors, and other body panels (except, for some strange reason, the tailgate and lift glass frame…) were all made of aluminum. For its time, it was quite advanced. The lightweight body allowed most of the mass and weight to be concentrated in the frame and drivetrain, lowering the center of gravity — useful in an off-road-capable vehicle. The original Range Rover and its later cousin the original Discovery were constructed as kind of a lightweight semi-unibody bolted onto a very robust steel frame. Modern construction techniques have left it behind as a curiosity, but it was remarkable in its time.
Funny how we have to put up with all sorts of ugly air curtain and other styling doo-dads to eek out miniscule extra range/mileage out of cars at higway speeds, which for most of us are not a regular use case, yet weight reduction can benefit efficiency in all use cases.
Especially now that Europe is considering cracking down on brake dust and tire dust. The lower the weight, the less dust you make.
The holiest of grails?
No holes, it’s aluminium! =)
Give it to David Tracy for a month and watch the rocker panels turn orange
“…some kids from France are about to become the most iconic electronic music duo of all time…” Even better than OMD or Erasure or Yazoo or Pet Shop Boys? I find this highly suspect.
I seem to recall Audi commercials in the 90’s touting their aluminum space frame which showed two people carrying it. I tend to recall a steel I-beam falling and the announcer intoning the only thing heavier than steel is more steel, then a second I-beam falls next to it.
I found the commercial:
Iconic and best aren’t quite the same thing. Daft Punk had the look and imagery the other groups don’t – I couldn’t tell you what the OMD guys look like, but the Daft Punk helmets are etched in my mind.
But whose music is better is in the ears of the listener.
It still ain’t Erasure.
SHO V6 had an iron block, since it was based on the vulcan motor. They could have done a short run with aluminum blocks for the AIV program specifically, certainly possible, but probably unlikely.
As I understand it, the AIV used the standard SHO block. I did a deep dive on these last year and found some good info about their development. Evidently Ford was concurrently working on a stronger gearset for the 5-speed that was available behind the SHO motor. 1st and 2nd gen SHOs were notorious for eating up manual transmissions but the auto held up ok. Anyways, they tossed around the idea of using the HD 5spd in the AIV, but went with the auto at the last moment. The HD 5spd project was canned and my research indicates the 4 prototype transmissions were sold off. Would have loved to see how the AIV could perform with a stick shift.
I didn’t see a lot of MTX SHO’s needing to replace the transmission, but they did go through clutches more often than the average stick-shift car. On the flip side… all of the AXOD/AX4S/AX4N transaxles in Tauruses/Windstars were not great (SHOs had 1 or 2 of these variants). I didn’t see many of these making it to 125k miles or above. The other transaxles were decent and could go to 200k with proper maintanence (CD4E, for example) and the 6 speeds (not DCT) that followered were even better.
Honda Insight from 2000-2006 was also aluminum and made at the same NSX plant and was hand welded.
Sounds like someone has a case of the Mondays
If I said that I believe I’d get my ass kicked.
“You need an opener?”
“Got my own, thanks”
Wait, Mercury Monday? .. actually on a Monday? I’m confused. 🙂
Mercury Monday, now with even more Monday!
Note the author… not the usual Mercury Monday author.