Versus the competiton:
The restyled Mercury Mariner is like a typical suburban subdivision home: It looks OK on the outside, and the price tag for a well-equipped model makes its spotty interior go down a bit easier. It doesn’t stand out among its peers, but neither does it have any deal-breaking drawbacks. I can’t find any compelling reason not to give the Mariner an endorsement, but I can’t bring myself to do so enthusiastically. Simply put, if you’re looking for an inexpensive SUV, the Mariner gets the job done — but that’s it.
The five-seat Mariner comes in base and Premier trim levels (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model). Base models have a four-cylinder or a V-6, while Premier versions employ only the V-6. An automatic transmission and front-wheel drive are standard across the line; all-wheel drive is optional. I drove an all-wheel-drive Mariner Premier.
The Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute are closely related to the Mariner. Like both of them, the Mariner also offers a hybrid variant, which is covered separately in the Research section on Cars.com.
Back when the first-generation Mariner and Escape arrived, Ford’s 200-horsepower Duratec V-6 served up capable acceleration compared to the barely-there passing power you’d find in most compact SUVs. Today, competitors like the Toyota RAV4 and Saturn Vue offer energetic, sometimes-thrilling power, and the Mariner doesn’t seem so athletic anymore. The old V-6 soldiers on unchanged, hitched to an old-school four-speed automatic. Power is adequate in most situations, but if you need to stomp on the gas to merge into a passing lane or climb a hill, the drivetrain can run out of breath.
Though it trails the competition by a gear or two, the Mariner’s automatic transmission doesn’t feel completely dated. It dispenses upshifts smoothly under normal conditions and quickly under rapid acceleration. At low speeds, it suffers none of the parking-lot fussiness that afflicts some other transmissions. A fifth or sixth gear would come in handy for highway passing, but the Mariner’s transmission still kicks down without too much hesitation — and the tall third gear provides ample power for 60-to-70 mph passing.
I didn’t drive the front-wheel-drive Mariner. It shaves off 164 pounds — about 5 percent of the SUV’s total weight — which likely contributes to sprightlier acceleration. A 153-hp four-cylinder is also available, but I didn’t drive it either.
Gas mileage ranges from 17/22 mpg (city/highway) with all-wheel drive and the V-6 to 20/26 mpg with the four-cylinder and front-wheel drive. Those figures beat the Saturn Vue but trail major competitors like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 slightly.
|Gas Mileage Compared (city/highway, mpg)
|Saturn Vue V-6
||16/23 (3.6L); 16/24 (3.6L Red Line)
||15/22 (3.5L); 16/22 (3.6L)
|Mercury Mariner V-6
|Saturn Vue 4-cyl.
|Toyota RAV4 V-6
|Mercury Mariner 4-cyl.
|Honda CR-V 4-cyl.
|Toyota RAV4 4-cyl.
Antilock brakes are standard, though they use discs in front and drums in back. Most major competitors have four-wheel-disc brakes. The Mariner’s pedal is rather mushy, but the SUV doesn’t pitch forward under hard braking as much as other SUVs do.
The optional all-wheel-drive system sends power to the front or rear wheels as needed. The system is fully automatic, distributing power without the driver needing to do anything. When properly equipped, the Mariner can tow 3,500 pounds.
Mercury says the Mariner boasts a number of engineering improvements for quieter driving. Among them are thicker side glass, a quieter cooling fan and more sound-deadening insulation. Aside from a persistent rattle somewhere near the passenger-side A-pillar, I found the ride impressively quiet over a 300-mile round trip between Chicago and Madison, Wis. At 80 mph I could listen to 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.
My highway trip subjected the SUV to some fierce crosswinds, but the steering wheel never became twitchy or imprecise. At lower speeds, the Mariner steers with a light effort — the norm for most SUVs — which makes for easy parking-lot maneuvers. The chassis serves up noticeable body roll in the corners, but it keeps its cool over stretches of broken pavement as well as I would expect any mass-market SUV to.
The Mariner’s cabin quality is 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 seem like they were added at the last minute, and the center controls and gearshift surroundings go overboard with silver-painted plastic. Oddly enough, the headliner is a high point; where many other SUVs have cardboard-hard mouse-fur, Mercury has invested in a rich, well-padded surface.
As usability goes, the Mariner 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. Other SUVs do this in one easy step.
With the seats folded, the Mariner offers a competitive 66.2 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.
|Cargo Dimensions Compared
In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Mariner earned the top score, Good, for side impacts. Frontal crash tests returned a score of Acceptable, one grade below Good.
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. (For various mechanical reasons, the 2008 Mariner Hybrid doesn’t have a stability system.)
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.
The Mariner starts at $20,920, some $2,150 more than an Escape. Standard features include an automatic transmission, alloy wheels and cruise control, all of which are optional on the Escape. 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 $1,000, and all-wheel drive costs $1,750. The Mariner Premier starts at $23,820; it comes with the V-6, leather upholstery, rear parking sensors, a power driver’s seat and dual-zone automatic climate control. Heated seats, a moonroof and a navigation system are optional. Check all the boxes, and a loaded Mariner AWD runs just over $30,000.
Don’t let the elegant wrapper fool you: Among compact SUVs, the Mariner is squarely in the middle of the pack. That’s more than I can say for some models — including the Mariner Hybrid, which lacks an all-important stability system. The regular Mariner makes the grade without any serious deal-breakers, interior quality and cargo versatility notwithstanding. For many buyers it should prove entirely adequate. For those seeking a more exciting choice, however, its lack of any compelling ingredients might be the Mariner’s biggest downfall.