updated 2/8/2005 5:56:49 PM ET 2005-02-08T22:56:49

Ford Motor Co. is counting on Mercury’s largest lineup in nearly four decades to end a skid of annual sales declines and back up Chairman Bill Ford’s contention that the struggling brand isn’t going the way of Oldsmobile.

The nation’s No. 2 automaker behind General Motors Corp. will use the stage of the Chicago Auto Show to introduce Mercury’s three latest vehicles — the 2006 Milan midsize sedan, the 2006 Mariner hybrid compact sport utility vehicle and the redesigned 2006 Mountaineer SUV.

All are scheduled to debut Wednesday, the first day of the auto show’s media preview at McCormick Place.

They’re part of a product offensive started in 2003 to add six all-new vehicles to Mercury’s lineup within four years. Among those already on the market are the larger Montego sedan, Monterey minivan and Mariner SUV.

The vehicles share assembly platforms with several sister Ford models — the Mariner and Ford Escape SUV, the Montego and Ford Five-Hundred sedan, the Mountainer and Ford Explorer SUV, for example — though the Mercurys are considered a step up in terms of styling and interior finishes from their Ford twins.

By the end of 2005, Mercury’s portfolio of seven cars and SUVs will be its largest in 37 years.

“A couple of years ago there were a lot of question marks about Mercury,” said Jeff Brodoski, an automotive analyst at J.D. Power and Associates. “Comparisons were drawn between it and the demise of Oldsmobile,” the aging brand that GM discontinued after the 2004 model year.

“But there’s a difference here, especially when you compare it to GM. Ford only has three domestic brands,” Brodoski said, while GM has more than twice that number.

At Mercury, Ford is trying to revive a brand that in recent years scrapped models such as the Cougar sports coupe, Mystique midsize sedan and Villager minivan. Bill Ford has been adamant that Mercury still has an important role in the automaker’s lineup, filling a niche between the Ford nameplate and the upscale Lincoln brand.

But it could certainly use a lift. Mercury’s U.S. sales fell 4.6 percent last year after declining 23.2 percent in 2003 and 15.6 percent in 2002, according to figures from Autodata Corp.

Brodoski said one of Mercury’s biggest challenges is to become more than just a bridge between Ford and Lincoln. It needs to become more distinctive in its styling — something Mercury says it’s trying to do with cars such as the upcoming Milan.

The five-passenger entry-level sedan will compete in one of the industry’s most competitive categories. Mercury says the car’s stylish design is aimed squarely at a younger buyer than traditionally has considered one of the brand’s models.

The car’s designers drew inspiration from the details of finely crafted handbags and other personal accessories.

“We’re reintroducing Mercury to young adults,” said Darryl Hazel, president of the Lincoln-Mercury division.

With an infusion of new vehicles at both Lincoln and Mercury, the division hopes to grow its annual sales from roughly 300,000 to more than 500,000 by the end of the decade.

The Milan is scheduled to go on sale this fall. In 2008, the Milan will become Mercury’s second full-hybrid vehicle, joining the Mariner.

Initially planned as a 2007 model, the Mariner hybrid was pulled ahead one year in response to growing customer demand for gas-electric propulsion. Ford says the Mariner hybrid, which also goes on sale in the fall, will get an estimated 33 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway.

The updated Mountaineer, introduced in 2001, also is slated for a fall launch.

Mercury has said it plans to build a new crossover vehicle with characteristics of both a minivan and SUV in 2007.

“The key for Mercury,” Brodoski said, “is to be able to stand on its own a little bit more.”

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