The restyled Mercury Mariner is the priciest of Ford's compact-SUV lineup, a group that also includes the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute. All three come in regular or gas-electric hybrid versions. The Mariner Hybrid drives as seamlessly as you can expect a hybrid to these days, and it delivers respectable power and real-world gas mileage in the 30s. That and a four-figure tax credit might be enough for Mercury to bag its share of hybrid-SUV diehards.
Not-so-diehards will want to weigh the Mariner's drivetrain against its shortcomings. The updated cabin still feels cheap, with missing convenience features and substandard materials. The cargo provisions aren't up to snuff, either. Worst of all, the Mariner Hybrid offers no electronic stability system, a must-have for any SUV today. Hybrid virtues notwithstanding, the Mariner could easily get lost in a tide of strong competitors like the Saturn Vue and Toyota RAV4.
The five-seat Mariner Hybrid comes with front- or all-wheel drive. I drove a front-wheel-drive version.
The 2008 model's drivetrain is mechanically identical to that of the first-generation Mariner Hybrid. A high-efficiency, 2.3-liter four-cylinder teams with a 70-killowatt electric motor, which draws power from a 330-volt battery pack under the rear cargo floor. Combined output is 155 horsepower. Thanks in part to the motor's prodigious torque — available entirely from a standing start — Ford estimates its zero-to-60 mph acceleration time will match that of the V-6 Mariner. A continuously variable automatic transmission is standard.
The Mariner Hybrid can run solely on electric or gasoline power, or on a combination of the two. You can drive up to 25 mph in electric mode; as in most hybrids, that happens in relative silence. In urban traffic, there's actually enough power to move from one stoplight to the next in electric mode without slowing all the cars behind you. Long stretches of open road demand faster acceleration than the electric motor can manage, so don't try to milk it for too long.
Mercury says the hybrid software has been retooled for smoother transitions between electric and gasoline power. Indeed, there is seldom the telltale whump that some hybrids incur when making the transition, though at times the engine can drone loudly as it springs to life. The engine doesn't start only when you've exceeded the electric motor's acceleration limits; it also kicks in during cold starts and whenever the battery needs to be recharged, which it will after a half-mile or so of puttering around in electric mode. Air conditioning, too, requires engine power, though a nifty "econ" button on the dashboard prevents the engine from running solely to cool your brow.
When substantial power is needed, the drivetrain performs well. The engine churns to life and kicks the tachometer up toward 4,000 rpm, where there's sprightly acceleration. Frequent lane changers should note that the transition from electric mode to full power takes a moment longer than a similar launch in a gas-powered car, so don't expect to dart willy-nilly from one traffic gap to the next.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes get a hand from the electric motor, which can function as a generator to slow the vehicle and recharge the high-voltage battery. Incidentally, this means Mariner Hybrids will need fewer brake jobs, as the pads aren't used as heavily to slow the vehicle. It also means drivers will have to accustom themselves to a mushy, uncertain pedal as the system shifts between the generator and the disc brakes.
With optional all-wheel drive, the Mariner Hybrid can transfer up to 100 percent of its power to the rear wheels. Under normal conditions, all power remains up front.
Gas Mileage & Emissions
With the EPA's stricter 2008 testing procedures, the front-wheel-drive Mariner Hybrid achieves an estimated 32 mpg in combined city and highway driving. All-wheel-drive models get 28 mpg. By the EPA's count, greenhouse gas emissions are a relatively earth-friendly 5.7 tons per year for front-wheel-drive Mariner Hybrids — about as much as a Toyota Yaris. All-wheel-drive Mariner Hybrids emit 6.6 tons per year.
|Front-Wheel-Drive SUVs Compared|
|EPA gas mileage (city/hwy, mpg)||Greenhouse gas emissions (tons/year)*|
|Mercury Mariner 4-cylinder||20/26||8.3|
|Mercury Mariner V-6||18/24||9.2|
|Mercury Mariner Hybrid||34/30||5.7|
|Toyota RAV4 4-cylinder**||21/27||8.0|
|Toyota RAV4 V-6**||19/27||8.3|
|Saturn Vue 4-cylinder||19/26||8.3|
|Saturn Vue V-6||16/23||9.6|
|*Includes carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane; expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents. Most vehicles range from 3.5 to 16.2 tons per year.|
**2007 models; 2008 information not available at time of publication.
All figures are for front-wheel-drive versions; 2007 numbers have been adjusted to reflect revised fuel economy testing procedures for 2008 models.
On the five-mile urban commute to our Chicago offices, the Mariner Hybrid's trip computer told me I averaged 29.6 mpg. One 75-mile highway excursion to the suburbs netted me 31.6 mpg — not bad, considering it was 90 degrees most of the day.
Ride & Handling
With a four-wheel-independent suspension tuned for comfort, the Mariner delivers a relatively smooth ride. Mercury says it made a number of modifications, like thicker windows and a more aerodynamic roof, to quell wind and road noise. It shows: At highway speeds, I never needed to crank the stereo.
All Mariners have a new electric power steering system. It saves fuel by ridding the engine of an accessory belt, but it makes for imprecise, artificial-feeling steering. That can be troublesome on the highway, as crosswind corrections feel more like the meandering sort — hardly the stuff of confident handling. Body roll seems about average for a compact SUV.
The previous Mariner was maligned for its interior, which had too many dated controls and cheap plastic surfaces. The new cabin is better, but it still feels low-rent. There are too many rough edges and exposed screw heads, and the metallic plastic around the gearshift is especially wretched. Most of the surfaces are molded plastic — attractive from a distance but dingy up close. The center controls offer the most promise, with a new "poke through" design that looks much more integrated than the traditional square cutouts for the stereo and climate systems. The glove compartment is miniscule — it can't even fit the owner's manual — but a mammoth center console makes up for it.
Cloth seats are standard; the leather in my test car could have used a bit more padding, but the upholstery itself felt premium enough. A power driver's seat is standard in the Mariner Hybrid, but it only adjusts the cushion. The backrest has a manual adjuster — a cost-cutting measure that doesn't befit a car of this price.
Rear passengers will find plenty of legroom and headroom. The seat cushions are a bit low to the ground, though, so those with long legs will face their knees the whole trip. There is neither a center armrest nor a reclining seatback, amenities many of the Mariner's competitors have managed to include.
Cargo & Towing
Cargo capacity behind the second row is 27.9 cubic feet, accessible either through the tailgate or an independently opening rear window. Stow the backseat, and maximum volume totals 65.9 cubic feet. Folding the seat is a cumbersome three-step process: remove the head restraints, flip the seat cushion forward and fold the seatback down. You might need to break for snacks at some point. At least the load floor is reasonably flat when all is done.
A number of competitors offer more cargo room and one-step folding seatbacks that don't require head restraints or seat cushions to be moved. Here is how the Mariner compares:
|Cargo Provisions Compared|
|Max. cargo capacity (cu. ft.)||Backseat folding|
|Saturn Vue||56.4||One step|
|Mercury Mariner||65.9||Three steps|
|Honda CR-V||72.9||Three steps|
|Toyota RAV4*||73.0||One step|
|Hyundai Santa Fe*||78.2||One step|
|*Without optional third row|
With proper equipment, the Mariner Hybrid can tow up to 1,000 pounds; the regular Mariner can tow up to 3,500 pounds.
All non-hybrid Mariners come with an electronic stability system in the form of Ford's AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control. No such luck with the hybrid. Ford says AdvanceTrac will be offered on the 2009 model, but there were complications engineering the regenerative brakes to work alongside the stability system. For the time being, Mariner Hybrids have to make do with four-wheel disc brakes and ABS.
Other standard safety features include the mandatory front airbags, as well as side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. The curtain airbags employ a "roll-fold" technique that deploys them between an occupant's head and the window even if he or she is leaning against the glass.
All five seats include head restraints. They extend high enough to protect anyone of average size, but the ones in the rear perch too far back to afford much whiplash protection.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash-tested the 2008 Mariner Hybrid. The conventional Mariner earned a rating of Good for side impacts and Acceptable for front impacts, but due to substantial equipment and weight differences between the two, IIHS says those ratings do not reflect the hybrid's performance.
Features, Rebates & Pricing
Without the destination charge, prices for the regular Mariner range from $20,730 to $25,380. The two-wheel-drive Mariner Hybrid goes for $25,765, while the all-wheel-drive version runs $27,515. Pile the options high, and a fully loaded model costs about $32,000.
For the foreseeable future, the government offers a $3,000 tax credit for the two-wheel-drive Mariner Hybrid; all-wheel-drive versions get $2,200.
Standard features on the hybrid include power windows, locks and mirrors, a six-CD stereo, dual-zone automatic climate control, remote keyless entry, cruise control, a power driver's seat and 16-inch alloy wheels. Options include a moonroof, heated leather seats and a navigation system. Though they're available in the regular Mariner, steering-wheel audio controls are strangely not offered for the hybrid. Go figure.
Mariner Hybrid in the Market
Right now, the Mariner Hybrid and its siblings are the only hybrid SUVs on the market with gas mileage in the 30s and price tags under $30,000. That's probably enough for them to attract their share of buyers. Think long and hard if you're inclined to join them — the Mariner Hybrid has all the conventional Mariner's shortcomings, plus one more: the missing electronic stability system. Those enamored with the hybrid magic ought to consider waiting a year for AdvanceTrac to come around. With that, this SUV will become a much more plausible choice.
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