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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Kelsey Mays
October 31, 2008
The 2009 Mercury Mariner has been mechanically overhauled, on the heels of a total redesign for 2008. New four-cylinder and V-6 drivetrains produce more power with better gas mileage, and ride quality and braking performance have improved. The cabin also has some interesting new options.
Those are all good things, because the redesigned 2008 Mariner left me lukewarm. Its acceleration was too modest to justify its thirst at the pump, and it had too many low-rent plastics and seating annoyances inside. The changes for 2009 move the Mariner from average to appealing, but not decisively so. It still has a few flaws, and lined up against the ever-competitive Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V — not to mention new favorites from Saturn, Subaru and VW — Mercury's contender doesn't stand out.
The five-seat Mariner comes in base and Premier trim levels with front- or all-wheel drive; you can get a four-cylinder or V-6 engine, and an automatic transmission is standard. I drove a four-cylinder Mariner Premier, but I've driven the same V-6 in Ford's closely related Escape, which Cars.com reviewer Joe Wiesenfelder covers in a separate review. The Mazda Tribute is likewise related; it's covered separately in Cars.com's Research section.
All three have gas-electric hybrid versions, also covered separately in the Cars.com Research section. Click here to compare the regular and hybrid '09 Mariner to its '08 counterparts. Going & Stopping Last year's V-6 Mariner offered adequate power, but its performance fell short of the lustier V-6s in the RAV4 and Saturn Vue. Worse yet, its 17/22 mpg city/highway rating with all-wheel drive ranked near the bottom of the small-SUV crowd. Not so for '09: With 40 more horsepower at hand, the revamped V-6 launches you swiftly, coming on strong particularly in the 40-60 mph range. And it's rated 2 mpg better on the highway.
That's due in part to the new six-speed automatic, which replaces last year's antiquated four-speed gearbox. The four-speed wasn't a deal-breaker; it upshifted smoothly around town and kicked down to third on the highway for easy-enough passing performance. The six-speed isn't as well-mannered in its upshifts, but its highway responsiveness is just as good — and it has shorter gears for quicker passing-lane bursts, with none of the old drivetrain's droning exhaust.
The four-cylinder Mariner's engine is stronger but more efficient than last year's four-banger. As in the V-6, a six-speed auto replaces the 2008 model's four-speed. Though it can sound a bit raspy at times, the four-cylinder should be fine for most drivers — there's enough power to climb ramps and bridges without needing to floor the accelerator. Provided you aren't hauling a full load of passengers or cargo, passing slower highway traffic is easy enough.
My only beef concerns the six-speed automatic, which seemed even choppier here than it does with the V-6. Particularly annoying were its second-to-third upshifts: It would sometimes finish out second gear, bog down for a moment and then abruptly find its footing in third. Assistant editor Joe Bruzek noticed the same phenomenon, which seemed to occur most often during routine acceleration around town. It doesn't happen when you step on the gas hard, so tread lightly during your test drive to see if you notice anything.
Like the V-6, the four-cylinder achieves a modest increase in gas mileage, moving it slightly ahead of the CR-V in combined city/highway mileage. The all-wheel-drive CR-V still beats an all-wheel-drive Mariner in combined ratings, as do the Nissan Rogue and four-cylinder RAV4.
2008 Mariner four-cyl.
2009 Mariner four-cyl.
2008 Mariner V-6
2009 Mariner V-6
Horsepower (@ rpm)
153 @ 5,800
171 @ 6,000
200 @ 6,000
240 @ 6,550
Torque (lbs.-ft., @ rpm)
152 @ 4,250
171 @ 4,500
193 @ 4,850
233 @ 4,300
EPA gas mileage (city/hwy., mpg)
20/26 (FWD), 19/24 (AWD)
20/28 (FWD), 19/25 (AWD)
18/24 (FWD), 17/22 (AWD)
18/26 (FWD), 17/24 (AWD)
Towing capacity (lbs.)
Source: Automaker and EPA data.
Mercury retuned the Mariner's brakes for 2009 to provide better pedal feel, but low-tech rear drum brakes are still employed across the line. That said, I sensed a definite improvement: Last year's brakes were spongy at first, but this year's clamp down more decisively. Like before, antilock braking is standard. Ride & Handling On the heels of last year's sound-deadening improvements — including thicker side glass, a quieter cooling fan and more insulation all around — the suspension has been retuned for better handling, with a newly incorporated rear stabilizer bar. Mercury also cites a retuned steering system this year for improved response. The Mariner still steers with a light effort, the norm for most SUVs, and corners with noticeable body roll. At low speeds it turns a 36.7-foot circle, which ranks about midpack in this crowd.
Ride quality is generally good: At 80 mph, it's possible to enjoy instrumental music without cranking the stereo. The four-wheel-independent suspension absorbs bumps with a measured ka-thunk, but it's more of a sound than a feeling, and it isn't followed by any reverberations. On the highway, the steering wheel settles into a comfortable straight-ahead feel, with none of the twitchy or imprecise movements some high-assist steering systems exhibit. Exterior & Styling The Mariner sports a number of slight changes for '09, all in the name of improving mileage: The bumpers have slight extensions in the front and rear to enhance aerodynamics, and the wheels now wear low-rolling-resistance tires. All told, the changes are difficult to tell at a glance — the '09 looks a lot like the '08, which didn't depart all that much from the previous generation anyway. That's not a bad thing, in my book; the Mariner is a congenial-looking rig. Fog lights and 16-inch alloy wheels are standard, with 17-inch chrome wheels optional on the Mariner Premier. The latter trim also swaps the base Mariner's black mirrors for body-colored ones. The Inside For 2009, the Mariner's optional navigation system upgrades to Ford's next-generation software with intuitive touch-screen menus and much-improved graphics. Sirius Travel Link is also optional. The subscription-based service displays nearby gas stations with fuel prices updated a few times a week. It can also display movie listings, sports scores, weather conditions and real-time traffic information. In my past experience with Travel Link, the fuel-price feature proved especially handy — and reasonably accurate, too. The service runs $6.99 a month, but also requires an in-car subscription to Sirius Satellite Radio, which runs $6.99 and up per month. Naturally, both subscriptions offer discounts if you sign on for longer periods.
Alas, the rest of the Mariner's cabin is still hit-and-miss, and cargo configurability is a few steps behind the competition. The dashboard's contemporary shapes and angled surfaces look interesting enough, but there's a tactile severity that permeates the whole interior. The plastics look and feel cheap, with uneven gaps along some surfaces. Elements like the hazards button and overhead sunglass holders look like they were added as an afterthought, and the center controls and gearshift surroundings go overboard with silver-painted plastic. Oddly enough, the headliner is a high point; where many SUVs have cardboard-hard mouse-fur, Mercury has invested in a rich, well-padded cloth surface.
Usability fares a bit better. I could fit my laptop computer in the mammoth center console, and the radio and A/C controls place essential information on an easily readable display atop the dashboard. The seats have decent adjustment range, though the power driver's seat doesn't include a power recliner — you have to angle it forward and backward manually.
The seats have durable cushions, but the ones in back are a bit low to the ground, so tall passengers should expect to become familiar with their knees. The rear seats aren't adjustable, and folding them down is a frustrating three-step process: Remove the head restraints, flip the seat cushions forward and fold the seat down. Many other SUVs do this in one easy step.
With the seats folded, the Mariner offers a competitive 66.3 cubic feet of storage space. The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 have more space, but both suffer design flaws at least as vexing as the Mariner's — the CR-V's second row is equally aggravating to stow, and the RAV4's side-hinged swing gate requires a lot of clearance to open. The Mitsubishi Outlander, for all its roominess, has a controversial tailgate/liftgate combo. Some people love it; I really don't.
Cargo Dimensions Compared
Behind 2nd row (cu. ft.)
Behind 1st row (cu. ft.)
*Two-row models. Source: Automaker data for 2009 models.
Safety In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Mariner earned the top score, Good, for side impacts. Thanks to various structural modifications, as well as changes to the seat belts and front airbags, frontal crash-test scores have been upgraded from Acceptable to Good. In fact, the '09 Mariner, Escape and Tribute have now earned a Top Safety Pick award from IIHS.
Standard safety features include front and side-impact airbags for the front seats, along with side curtain airbags for both rows. Antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are also standard. The stability system employs Ford's Roll Stability Control, which uses a tilt sensor to detect imminent rollovers and apply preventative measures.
Child-safety provisions include Latch child-seat anchors for the outboard rear seats. Top-tether anchors for all three positions are mounted in the ceiling behind the seats. They pivot in the direction of the seats, but fastening a tether up there — rather than in the seatback, as many SUVs allow — can obstruct rear visibility and cargo room. Features & Pricing The Mariner starts at $22,310, an increase of $770 over the '08 model's year-end price. That's also some $2,200 more than a base Escape, which has a manual transmission and fewer standard features. Standard equipment on the Mariner includes the six-speed automatic, alloy wheels, cruise control and a CD stereo with steering-wheel audio controls. Power windows, a CD stereo, a trip computer and remote keyless entry are also standard, but a height-adjustable driver's seat is not.
Upgrading to the V-6 engine adds about $1,000, and all-wheel drive costs $1,750. The Mariner Premier starts at $24,425; it comes with partial leather upholstery, a six-way power driver's seat and an upgraded six-CD stereo with Ford's Sync communications system. Dual-zone automatic climate control, heated seats, a moonroof, upgraded leather and a navigation system are optional. Check all the boxes, and a loaded Mariner AWD runs about $33,000. Mariner in the Market Improved though it is, the Mariner is still midpack in an extremely competitive compact-SUV market. It improves on many fronts versus last year's model, but new contenders from Subaru and VW have raised the bar again. For a lot of you, the Mariner should prove adequate. For those seeking a more exciting choice, however, the lack of any compelling ingredients — save the razzle-dazzle navigation system — might ultimately sink this choice.