Friday Fleet Notes: 6.29.07

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We have a varied sampling this week, with a hybrid SUV, an aging retro cruiser and a somewhat-rare look at a full range of trim levels for two new sedans.

2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid

I like the Mariner and Ford Escape Hybrids because they use hybridized four-cylinders instead of V-6 engines like the Toyota and Lexus hybrid SUVs. As for the Saturn Vue Green Line, it may be a four-cylinder, but the transmission is conventional and the engine doesn’t use the Atkinson cycle like the Fords do, so its mileage gains aren’t as great.

The Mariner’s running modifications make it as refined as it probably can be, but the system is clearly not to the level of the current Toyota Prius and Camry Hybrid. It shows in the braking and — as Kelsey Mays pointed out in his full review — the air conditioning, which keeps the engine running. Specifically, the Prius uses an electric A/C compressor so the engine can stay off unless the high-voltage battery drains all the way down. I used the Mariner’s econ setting in stop-and-go traffic, and I absolutely roasted. I was cool in regular A/C mode, but this sacrifices the operation that is supposed to be a hybrid’s most efficient: stop-and-go, all-electric driving. Damn shame.

  • Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor

I really wanted to like the new Mercury Mariner Hybrid. I’ve always been a fan of compact SUVs, and the Mariner Hybrid gets great mileage, so I had high hopes that its design and drivability would stand up to its mpg ratings. Although I didn’t take much issue with the way it handled, the interior left a bit to be desired.

The Mariner Hybrid has a great interior … for a Jeep Wrangler. The materials seemed too industrial-looking, plastic and occasionally cheap for a car that’s supposed to be a step up from Ford in the luxury department. When I flipped open the sunglass holder, it felt so flimsy I was worried it was going to snap off in my hand. Also, folding the rear seats flat required far too many steps: remove the headrests, scramble to find a place to store them, slide and flip each of the seat bottoms forward, then fold the seat down. It should be one smooth motion, not four.

One thing I did like about the new Mariner was the seamless way it switched from electric to gasoline modes and back. In some earlier hybrids, you would experience a shudder or noticeable thunk when the car switched modes, but there were times in the Mariner when the only way I could tell the car had switched modes was looking at the gauges.

  • Amanda Wegrzyn, Advice editor
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Last week in Michigan I had a chance to drive the Avenger alongside its mild-mannered bedfellow, the Chrysler Sebring. All told, I sampled the base four-cylinder and two V-6s along with a range of trim levels for both cars — a rare opportunity even in automotive journalism.

The verdict: If you don’t mind the everyman styling, pick the Chrysler over the Dodge. While the Sebring’s vintage-metal interior wins no awards, it’s far better than the Avenger’s cabin, which reminds me of an upsized Dodge Caliber. The separate Chill Zone compartment above the glove box and the molded tray ahead of the gearshift expand storage space beyond what you get in the Sebring, but I don’t think they’re worth the acres of hard plastic that are facing every which way.

The four-cylinder gets raucous when you’re accelerating to highway speeds, and it never feels particularly energetic. Drive a base Accord and you’ll find that not all four-bangers need behave this way. Unless you’re revving hard, the 2.7-liter V-6 doesn’t feel much stronger. The 3.5-liter V-6 and upgraded transmission give the Avenger some much-needed confidence, though even in the sportiest Avenger R/T the ride and steering are not up to Saturn Aura or Mazda6 levels.

  • Kelsey Mays, reviewer
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The current PT is a paradox. I never had a problem with its styling in general; I give a lot of leeway when an automaker does something truly different. (Not Aztek different, but PT or Chevy SSR or HHR different.) The execution is now better than it was originally, when its gray front bumper looked like it was slapped on after the fact — followed in later years by a body-colored bumper that looked slapped on after the fact. Now all that stuff is well-integrated. I’m down on the interior and driving, though.

Interior quality has jumped so much in the market that the PT’s now falls behind, even for an affordable car. The automatic transmission could use more than four speeds, especially given the gas mileage we experienced: below 20 mpg in mixed driving. What struck me most was how loud it gets inside as speed mounts. I found myself riding the stereo’s volume nonstop, and a few times I checked the window switches to see if the noise from the rear could really be coming through closed windows. The PT’s platform is being phased out, and I’m wondering if they should rework it or just retire the model and do something new and interesting.

  • Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor

I only had the PT Cruiser for one night, its last in the fleet. That meant one round-trip commute and little else, but that was enough to remind me how out-of-date the retro cruiser truly is. There wasn’t much wrong with the PT when it came out, but it’s been years since then, and the age of the technology under my feet was evident.

The most egregious problem wasn’t the sense of driving a brand-new used car, it was the transmission and loud exhaust. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, the turbo delivered a none-too-subtle ka-chunk as it downshifted. One time it was so pronounced I thought the engine had died.

The interior is awkward and ergonomically unfriendly, but has held up to the newer Chrysler products pretty well, but maybe that’s not saying much. I just couldn’t see anyone buying a PT today with so much else out there, especially the new Scion xB.

  • David Thomas, KickingTires editor

Related Expert Reviews
2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid
2008 Dodge Avenger
2007 Chrysler Sebring

Photo of David Thomas
Former managing editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David Thomas

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