- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

If you were to sum up Mercury Mariner’s mission in just a few words, they would be: a gussied-up version of Ford’s Escape. Many carmakers put a new face on one division’s product and market it through another division.

Thirty years ago consumers would have been aghast to find a Chevrolet engine in a Pontiac, but in today’s market it is common practice to slap a different grille and front fascia on a vehicle and market it through a different brand under a different name.

No harm, no foul.

Nearly every multi-division manufacturer does it. In the case of the Escape and Mariner, much of the sheetmetal and interior are unique to each brand; however, most of what you don’t readily see is shared.

In the spirit of Mariner’s mission then, the top-of-the-line $25,544 Mariner Premier 4WD will be the focus here. You can spend as little as $21,395 for the front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder-engine-equipped Mariner, but if you’re not going for all the bells and whistles, why not just purchase the less pricey Ford?

With the same engine and automatic transmission as the entry-level Mariner, the Escape can be had for as little as $19,173. It’s not as well equipped, but if you’re budget bound, a couple of grand is a big difference.

Both the Ford and the Mercury received a cosmetic makeover for 2008.

If budget pricing isn’t your greatest concern, the Mariner Premier offers all the luxury and upscale features most people could want.

Without tacking on any options, the Premier trim level includes power accessories, leather seating, an audio system with a six-disc, in-dash CD changer and auxiliary input jack for personal music devices, dual-zone automatic climate control, driver’s message center, auto-dim rearview mirror, reverse sensing system, tire pressure monitoring system, stability control, canopy side-curtain airbags and automatic headlamps.

Ponying up another two grand delivers the DVD-based navigation system with a 6.5-inch in-dash color screen and Audiophile audio upgrade, which, among other enhancements, boosts the speaker count from four to seven and adds satellite radio capability.

Even with the 3-liter V6, Mariner is a cruiser, not a sprinter.

Accelerating with determination when the light goes green, its 200 horsepower and 193 pounds-feet of peak torque don’t make for blistering take offs — gathering speed is a more deliberate exercise for Mariner.

Once it has achieved decent thrust, however, it cruises effortlessly. At highway speeds, it has sufficient reserves to scoot around slower traffic without protest.

A four-speed automatic transmission distributes engine output to the wheels. Fuel economy isn’t quite up to par with some other V6-equipped competitors, but adequate.

The Environmental Protection Agency rates its mileage at 17 miles per gallon in city traffic and 22 mpg on the highway. An extended trip with the Mariner V6 produced an average of just less than 22 mpg.

While the four-cylinder Mariners make do with drum brakes on the rear wheels, the V6 versions sport disc brakes at all four corners.

An antilock system oversees the brakes and, in addition to the already mentioned stability control, includes traction control and electronic brakeforce distribution.

The steering is responsive with just the right amount of resistance.

The interior is roomy enough. A fifth adult may cramp things in the rear seat, but five can fit when absolutely necessary.

Cargo space behind the 40/60 bench second-row seat is 29 cubic feet. That space can be increased up to 66 cubic feet by folding down the second-row seatback. While some competitors let you do this in one fluid motion that even folds the headrests out of the way, the Mariner takes a more traditional approach with separate steps required to remove the headrests, pull the bottom cushions forward and then fold the seatback down.

Where the luxury battle is won or lost is in the cabin. Mariner’s is nicely executed. The fit and finish is exceptional and the materials appear top notch.

The two-tone leather in the test Mariner added a touch of richness.

Although the rear seat is something akin to a church pew, the front seats are firm, supportive and comfortable, even for multi-hour durations. The instrumentation is easy to find and read, and the controls simple to use.

Introducing the navigation system into the mix doesn’t overly complicate operation either.

It is concise, accurate and easy to program.

Cup holders and storage cubbies abound. Storage space in the center console is plentiful enough that you might be tempted to drop a pebble in it and then count the seconds until it hits bottom.

Mariner slugs it out in a very competitive segment; however, for the price, most people will probably be impressed with the quantity of features and quality of construction.

On the road it handles more like a car than a truck thanks to a four-wheel independent suspension that manages to walk that fine line between decent handling and a comfortable ride without severely compromising either.

If what you need is the serviceability of a Ford Escape, but what you want is that extra degree of luxury that Mercury provides, the Mariner Premier 4WD is just the ticket.

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