The second-generation Mercury Mariner bears a strong resemblance to its predecessor, but the most important differences are found under the all-new skin. The interior is more refined, the cabin is quieter and fuel economy has improved by two miles per gallon.

The Mariner shares its platform and mechanical components with the Ford Escape.

Compact SUVs continue to be popular because they are small enough to be maneuverable in the city, versatile enough to fulfill a number of roles and considerably thriftier when it comes to fuel consumption.

The Mariner's all-new sheet metal includes revised front and rear fascias, a new liftgate, bolder headlamps, a raised beltline and a larger grille.

The Mariner is available in front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Engine choices include a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder, a 3.0-liter V-6 or a hybrid gas/electric powertrain. There are two trim levels, standard and Premier. I drove a Premier with the V-6.

Prices start at $21,395 for a front-wheel-drive with the four-cylinder and top out at $26,045 for an all-wheel-drive Premier.

The most impressive changes have been made to the interior. The instrument panel has sophisticated textures, new gauges and a new center stack. The instruments have blue lighting because it is easier on the eyes in the dark.

An eye-level window at the top of the center stack has digital readouts for radio, temperature and climate-control settings. The audio system contains an iPod jack, and a navigation system is optional.

The cloth seats use recycled fabric.

The center console has two removable bins that conceal a sizable storage space. Ford says a laptop will fit inside, but it would have to be a small one.

Ford worked to reduce noise and vibration. The recessed channels stamped into the roof not only improve airflow but also strengthen the body structure and help cut sound. A layer of acoustic laminate was added to the windshield, and the headliner deadens sound. The carpet is also thicker.

Folding the second-row seat is not a one-step operation. The seat cushion has to be pulled out and folded forward, and the headrests have to be removed from the seatback.

The 200-horsepower V-6 is the most responsive powerplant, and it is capable of towing of 3,500 pounds. Electronic power steering is quieter and more efficient than power steering driven by the engine.

The all-wheel-drive system sends power to the front wheels under most conditions. When the front wheels slip, torque is directed to the rear wheels by a computer that makes 200 calculations per second. A benefit of this system is that there is no binding or harshness in the driveline during tight turns, yet all four wheels can provide traction when needed.

The Mariner has a firm and purposeful ride without being harsh or jarring. It handles more like a small sedan than a little truck.

Safety features include anti-lock brakes, traction control, side-curtain airbags for both first and second seats, side impact airbags and a vehicle stability system with roll control.

Price The base price of the test car was $26,045. Options included 17-inch wheels, roof rack, navigation system, satellite radio, tow package, heated seats and rear cargo cover. The sticker price was $29, 945.

Warranty Three years or 36,000 miles with a five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty.