- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

Badge engineering, achieved with the proper vehicle and not done to excess, can be a very healthy way for an automaker to inexpensively share a successful product among some or all of its divisions. With few exceptions, key elements remain the same and often assembly for all versions can be accomplished in the same plant. So why not morph a Nissan 350Z into an Infiniti G35 or a Toyota Camry into a Lexus ES 330?

Of course any good thing can be taken to extremes. Badge engineering was so pervasive at General Motors in the ‘80s that it nearly wrecked the automotive giant by blurring the divisions and sapping their individual personalities. Oldsmobile expired in the recovery room while Pontiac and Buick continue to struggle.

Ford has maintained Mercury on life support for well over a decade with a similar strategy. Rather than engineering distinctive models for its red-headed-stepchild division, Ford has given a Mercury makeover to most of the passenger cars in its Ford showroom. Only the Focus, Mustang and Thunderbird have avoided being dressed up and hustled off to help prop up Mercury. This practice has gone beyond passenger cars. Ford’s Freestar is the basis for Mercury’s Monterey minivan and, new for 2005, Mercury receives the Escape-based Mariner compact SUV.

In the short term, badge engineering is an inexpensive solution to populating Mercury showrooms, but over time the question is: Can Mercury retain a loyal owner base selling only gussied-up Fords?

The Mercury lineup comprises good vehicles one and all. They are all based on very solid Ford products. This is certainly true of the Mariner.

While it shares its basic shape and sheet metal with the Ford Escape, the Mariner is distinctive in its detailing: grill, front fascia, rocker panels, trim and taillamps. Inside the differences between these kissing cousins are also subtle ? primarily in surfaces and fabrics.

There’s more brightwork in the Mariner and some faux-wood accents too. The two-toned leather seats with suede inserts standard in the top-of-the-line Premiere edition far outshine anything available in the Escape. The core dashboard layout is the same.

Mariner is available in two trim levels building up to the Premiere: Convenience and Luxury. All three are offered in either front- or all-wheel drive. AWD versions don’t have a 4-Low gear for serious off-pavement work.

The Convenience version is the only Mariner using the 153-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. If you want a clutch and a transmission you can row, stick with the Escape. All Mariners come with a four-speed automatic tranny. Powering the Luxury and Premier versions is a 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6. Providing plenty of gusto for sprinting around town or galloping on the open highway, this V-6 is both smooth and quiet. The grit to tow 3,500 pounds further enhances its resume. Fuel economy is decent for a V-6-powered SUV. The Environmental Protection Agency has rated it at 20 miles per gallon around town, while crediting it with 25 mpg on the highway.

Thanks to its unibody construction and comfort-tuned independent suspension, Mariner provides a decidedly carlike ride. While the suspension is firm enough to discourage body roll, it still manages to insulate occupants from most pavement inconsistencies. Four-wheel disc brakes with antilock are standard on all Mariners. Included in the system is brake assist.

Taking what was already a tidy and logically arranged instrument panel in the Escape, Mercury has spruced it up some with silver trim. The fake wood spread around here and there doesn’t do much to elevate the quality of the experience, however. The large round gauges are concise and easily seen. A wide center stack houses the audio system controls located above the simple-to-use climate-control knobs and buttons. These are flanked by air vents surrounded by brightwork.

The seats provide sufficient support to stave off fatigue on longer trips. The front seats are equipped with side-impact air bags. A 60/40 split rear seat can be folded forward to increase the already healthy 29 cubic feet of space behind it. While a couple of competitors such as Hyundai’s Santa Fe have more total cargo capacity with the second seat folded down, Mariner at more than 66 cubic feet outshines most of its compact SUV peers.

The most inexpensive Mariner is the 2WD Convenience priced at $21,995 with destination charges. It comes standard with 16-inch aluminum wheels, power outboard mirrors/door locks and windows, remote keyless entry, CD-equipped audio system, air conditioning and cruise control. A 2WD Luxury will set you back $23,495, but standard content swells to include power-adjustable driver’s seat, upgraded audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer, anti-theft alarm and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.

Laying out $25,245 buys the 2WD Premiere with extras such as heated outboard mirrors, upgraded audio system with subwoofer, automatic headlamps and those leather/suede seats.

Opting for AWD on any Mariner adds $1,750 to the bottom line, while the side-curtain air-bag option raises the ante another $595.

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