EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 2005 Mercury Mariner

It would be easy to dismiss the 2005 Mercury Mariner as a Ford Escape in sheep’s clothing.

It would be even easier to yawn your way through another review of some mid-size sport utility vehicle that is a carbon-copy of its sibling.

Hold that apathy.

To our wonderful surprise, the Mercury Mariner is not just a lame attempt to clone the Escape. It is not just a reason to give Mercury dealers a small SUV to sell. It is not a knockoff to get the division back on track.

Of course, it could succeed at being all three of those things. But it is one step better.

The Mariner is finally what Mercury was meant to be: Distinctive. Elegant. Different from Ford Division.

From its stacked headlamp front face and attractive grille, to an abundance of satin and aluminum throughout its interior, the four-door Mariner sets sail on a new course for Mercury.

The interior is one of the best we’ve seen in this segment, a mix of light or dark tones, French stitching on the seats (do the French stitch better?), wood, satin, aluminum and chrome. The gauges are ringed in satin. The wheels are distinctive. The seats have suede inserts. And if all of this seems superficial, when was the last time you wanted to brag about your compact SUV that did not have the initials BMW stuck to its side?

Of course, there is still an Escape lurking under all that gloss. And that’s a darn good thing. The Mariner shares the Escape’s basic structure, platform and powertrains.

Like the Escape, two engines are available from Mercury – a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and a 3-liter V-6. The 153-horse four-cylinder is good for city streets and short travel. It’s good on fuel, but a little loud on highway travels.

For the safety conscious, two- and four-wheel-drive mode are offered, and Mercury’s “Intelligent 4WD” system means that torque is shared from front to rear depending on when it is needed. In the snow and rain, it is a good setup. But I wouldn’t recommend following a Hummer H2 into the woods.

Ride quality might impress some who haven’t touched a small utility yet, landing somewhere between firm and comfortable thanks to a fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts up front, a multilink rear and coil springs at the four corners.

And the Mariner rides on a carlike unibody, rather than a truck frame such as some SUVs, which gives it that extra push toward smooth, quiet and in control. In many ways, it feels more carlike than compact than most small utilities.

On cargo, the Mariner is not an Expedition. But in this competitive small-utility segment, the Mariner has second-row folding seats that expand the cargo room from 29 cubic feet to 66. You should know that is respectable but on the low end for this segment.

But, as a plus, with the larger engine, you can even tow up to 3,500 pounds, more than a Honda CR-V but less than a Jeep Liberty.

So where does that leave us? In a word: Impressed. And it has been awhile since we could pull that one out of the thesaurus when we talked about Mercury.

It’s as good as an Escape when it comes to solid construction, on-road safety, practicality and a smooth powertrain. It’s better than an Escape when it comes to an up-level overall package and price.

What’s more: No yawning allowed. That’s a nice change.

2005 Mercury Mariner

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel-drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle

Key competition: Ford Escape, Jeep Liberty, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V

Base engine: 153 horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder

Transmission: Four-speed automatic transmission

Standard safety equipment: Four-wheel ABS; dual front air bags

MPG rating (V-6): 18 city/23 highway

Manufactured: United States

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles

Base price: $21,995

Price as tested (including destination and delivery): $29,550

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