Before we get to the 2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid, let's set the hybrid stage.

In an interview a few weeks ago with industry trade publication Automotive News, John Mendel, senior vice president of American Honda, said that yes, Honda would likely trim the production of Honda Accord Hybrids, because sales were down.

On the surface, this seems unthinkable: Gasoline is $3 a gallon, and Accord Hybrid sales are down?

It's true, and it marks a rare misstep for Honda. As Mendel said, "The industry went down the road of performance hybrids. That's where the Accord is."

Well, some of the industry. At the outset, I was confused by the Accord Hybrid: It is the most expensive Accord -- that's no surprise -- but with a combined 253 horsepower from its V-6 engine and electric motor, it is also the fastest, most powerful Accord you can buy. EPA-rated fuel mileage is 25 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway, but 29.6 mpg is the best I've been able to coax from an Accord Hybrid.

And granted, that isn't bad. But the regular Accord with its spunky 2.4-liter, 166-horsepower four-cylinder is rated at 26 mpg city, 34 mpg highway with the manual transmission, and 24 mpg city, 34 mpg highway with the automatic. I think a lot of potential Accord Hybrid buyers looked at that, and looked at the base price of the Hybrid -- $31,540 with shipping -- and wondered if going faster was worth it. They could get an Accord VP sedan with the automatic transmission, air conditioning, an AM/FM stereo with CD player and side and side-curtain airbags for a list price of $19,575, and expect mileage almost as good as the Accord Hybrid.

There's a lesson here. I wonder if in the long run, performance will ever trump fuel mileage for the majority of hybrid owners. As gas prices climb, I doubt it.

Which brings us to the 2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid, the corporate twin of the hybrid versions of the Ford Escape and coming-soon Mazda Tribute. The test Mariner Hybrid was loaded, with four-wheel drive, a navigation system, side air bags, leather upholstery and pretty much everything you can get. And, at $33,635, it's pricey -- so pricey that Ford is dropping hybrid prices for 2007. Base price of this 2006 Mariner Hybrid is $29,225. For the 2007 model, it's $28,510.

But the Mariner Hybrid works very, very well. EPA-rated mileage is 33 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and I was able to get pretty close to that in 300 miles of city/highway driving. Power from the modified 2.3-liter gasoline-fed four-cylinder engine, plus the electric motor, was more than adequate at a combined 155 horsepower.

Helpful was the CVT, or continuously variable transmission. It works like an automatic, but rather than have four or five forward gears, it has an infinite number. A CVT doesn't always mean increased mileage or power, but Ford is doing CVTs better than anyone.

Ford really hasn't received enough credit for the Escape/Mariner/Tribute hybrid trio. They are very nicely developed and executed, and -- although they don't get the mileage of, say, a Toyota Prius -- they're more enjoyable to drive, especially on the highway.

It's understandable that Ford wanted to get premium prices for its hybrids, because it has sunk a lot of money in research and development. But what's needed are prices that are lower still -- make now-standard equipment on the Mariner Hybrid, such as the six-disc CD changer and fog lights, optional. How about a bare-bones, manual-transmission Escape?

The buzz that once surrounded hybrids has died down. But the technology, applied properly, is sound. Ford is almost there.

Base price: $29,225.

Price as tested: $33,635.

EPA rating: 33 mpg city, 29 mpg highway.

Details: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive hybrid SUV with a 2.3-liter four-cylinder gas engine and an electric motor for a total of 155 horsepower, with a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith's video road tests can be viewed at OrlandoSentinel.com/classified/automotive.