EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

When Ford Motor Co. offers up a Ford Escape, I just can’t resist.

For despite all the competition in small crossover SUVs, the Ford Escape remains a personal favorite.

Buyers agree. The Escape outsells its competitors, including the Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Tucson, Hyundai Santa Fe, Honda CRV, Toyota RAV-4 and Mitsubishi Outlander among others.

But with so many Ford Escapes on the road, some buyers might desire an escape from the Escape’s ubiquity. Until now, that meant buying a Mazda Tribute, which is visually distinct from the Ford, but mechanically identical. Now, Mercury finally gets its own version, dubbed the Mariner.

This nifty little trucklet is incredibly handsome to look at, with Mercury’s trademark vertical grille giving the front end a strong, distinctive look. The Merc comes in three trim levels: Convenience, Luxury and Premier. Ford Motor Co. provided a loaded Premier for testing.

If you look at a Mariner, consider this trim level. Its stunning interior is accented with perforated suede inserts on the seats and door panels, smoked wood trim and metallic accents. Its suitably upscale of its plebeian Ford cousin and very sophisticated in feel.

Like the Tribute, the Mariner differs stylistically from the Escape, but not mechanically. The Mariner comes with front-wheel or full-time four-wheel-drive. Two engines are offered: 2.3-liter, 153-horsepower 4-cylinder or a 3-liter, 200-horsepower V-6. A hybrid version will become available for 2007.

The four-cylinder motor boasts some good fuel economy numbers, 22 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, but may not have enough power if you plan to haul around a lot of people or cargo. According to Ford, most buyers end up buying the V6 and four-wheel-drive, and this drivetrain has more than enough power for anything asked of it. The standard four-speed automatic transmission shifts obediently. Braking is drama-free.

But it’s the Mariner’s handling that sets it apart.

Its suspension is fully independent, so parking lot maneuverability is among the best in its class. The ride is suitably tied down, without a lot of truck-like motions. Visibility is excellent.

Front-seat comfort is quite good, but taller folks might find the rear-seat legroom tight. Most will find it sufficient. Cargo space is excellent, with a large square space that’s easy to utilize. The rear window can be opened separately from the rear tailgate, a real convenience.

The Mariner starts at $21,405, with front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder engine, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, fog lamps, power mirrors, windows and locks, keyless entry, AM/FM single CD stereo, and a leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel.

Pop for the Luxury trim level at $22,905 and Mercury adds the V-6 engine, power driver’s seat with lumbar support, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, anti-theft alarm, overhead console with dual storage bins, message center with compass, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, automatic headlamps.

The Premier starts at $24,655 and adds heated exterior mirrors, Mach audiophile stereo with subwoofer, automatic headlamps and power, heated seats with perforated suede. The four-wheel-drive Premier test vehicle started at $26,405. Its options included the reverse sensing system, a sunroof and side curtain air bags. The total came to just under $30,000.

Overall, the prices seem reasonable for a nimble SUV boasting an upscale feel. Being a Mercury, with its smaller production numbers, you won’t see yourself coming and going.

The Mariner’s differences from the Escape are merely skin deep, but that makes the best in class even better.

lprintz@mcall.com

610-820-6713 Email:larry.printz@mcall.com

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