Do you suffer from sport-utility vehicle guilt? There's no shame in admitting it, folks; there are plenty of you out there.
The primary symptom is intense emotional pain from driving an SUV the size of a subdivision and, lately, dropping $60 at the gas pump every time you fill it up.
Happily, there are cures out there. And if you don't want to go cold turkey and swap your land yacht for a subcompact two-seater, you can still stay in the SUV segment and likely experience a sharp reduction in guilt.
One such cure just came on the market for the 2005 model year - the Mercury Mariner.
The Mariner is a compact, five-seat SUV that features many of the most pleasant aspects of sport-utes. But perhaps more important in this era of SUV political correctness, it does not have an enormous appetite for gasoline.
Some have derisively called the Mariner a dressed-up version of the Ford Escape. Technically, that's a fair assessment. But I prefer taking the Mariner on its own merits for its distinctive look - just as the Mercury Mountaineer is distinct from its cousin, the Ford Explorer.
What you get in the Mariner is a generously equipped urban/suburban hauler with a sprinkling of very classy interior amenities and decidedly Mercury exterior touches - including a bold, vertical-slat grille with a prominent Mercury badge.
The tested model was the top dog among six trim levels - a four-wheel-drive Premier starting at $26,405. You can get a baseline, two-wheel-drive Mariner starting at $21,425. That model, which carries the Convenience label, has a four-cylinder, 153-horsepower engine with an advertised fuel-economy average of 24 miles per gallon for both city and highway driving.
The Premier, with a 200-horsepower, 3-liter V-6, is a little thirstier, getting 18 mpg in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway. That's not fantastic, but it's not bad for a five-seat SUV.
And for me, I liked the extra power offered by the V-6. It was a sure performer even on steep, uphill runs, although a bit noisy at high revs. Handling-wise, the Mariner was more like a sedan than an SUV.
Biggest surprise: The Mariner was elegant-looking inside. The tester was dressed up with a power moonroof and other goodies, but even as I mentally subtracted these while sitting in the driver's seat, I was still impressed with what remained with the standard package.
The standard list includes leather front seats with heat, a tooth-rattling sound system with six-CD capability, lumbar support in the six-way power driver's seat and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Also standard are power, heated exterior mirrors.
I particularly liked the Mariner's easy-to-understand center stack of controls with big buttons. At my advancing age, it's nice to know that I'm really triggering the air conditioning as opposed to, say, opening the fuel-filler door when I'm going 60 miles per hour on the freeway.
Mariner's cargo-carrying capability is pretty decent. The rear seats fold flat to lengthen the rear cargo area and create a capacity of 66.3 cubic feet.
However, veteran SUV buyers beware: This is truly not a big-boy vehicle. Topping out at 174.3 inches in length means that those three broad-shouldered adults you might have carried in comfort in the back seat of your full-size SUV are going to be grouchy jammed into the back seat of the Mariner.
Good news on the size: The Mariner is very easy to park. This might not seem like a big deal, but here's my question to drivers of full-size SUVs: When was the last time you parked your vehicle and the tires were not touching the white lines? Bonus question: How many door dings do you have from parking neighbors who smacked your vehicle trying to get out of theirs?
Mercury touts the Mariner as an "urban SUV," and that's spot-on. This is not the vehicle to take on a spine-jolting, log-crunching ride through the backcountry. There are plenty of other vehicles on the sales lot for that duty.
Overall, the Mariner shapes up as a nice compromise on several levels. It's not a Lexus, but it's far from a cheap-looking bottom feeder. It's not a super-size vehicle, but it will carry enough groceries to keep serious eaters happy. It does not get 50 mpg, but even the 3-liter engine will likely deliver an average in the 20-mpg range.
Whether you're seeking an entry-level SUV or downsizing from your gigantic sport-ute ways, the Mariner deserves a look. Either way, it's guilt-free.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Make/model: 2005 Mercury Mariner Premier 4WD. Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-wheel-drive, four-door, compact sport-utility vehicle.
Base price: $26,405 (as tested, $29,655).
Engine: 3-liter V-6 with 200 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 193 foot-pounds of torque at 4,850 rpm.
EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city; 23 mpg highway.
Transmission: Four-speed automatic.
Steering: Power rack and pinion.
Brakes: Four-wheel discs with anti-lock and quick-brake assist.
Suspension: Independent, MacPherson strut-type on front; independent, multi-link on rear (coil springs front and rear).
Cargo volume: 66.3 cubic feet (with rear seats folded).
Ground clearance: 8 inches.
Fuel tank: 16.5 gallons.
Curb weight: 3,520 pounds.
Track: 61.1 inches on front; 60.4 inches on rear.
Height: 67.9 inches.
Length: 174.3 inches.
Wheelbase: 103.1 inches.
Width: 70.1 inches.
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds.
Tires: P235/70R16 all-season radials.
Assembly point: Avon Lake, Ohio.
About the writer: The Bee's Mark Glover can be reached at (916) 321-1184 or email@example.com.