- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

Introduced in 2005, the Mercury Mariner started out calling itself an SUV, or sport utility vehicle.

But it’s really what is now widely called a CUV, or crossover utility vehicle. That’s because it is built like a car, with a unit body and front-wheel or all-wheel drive. A typical SUV is built like a truck, with a separate body and frame, and rear-wheel or four-wheel drive.

More to the point, the Mariner actually is a Ford Escape, albeit with different styling and accommodations. That’s not a bad thing because the Escape is the third-best selling CUV in the compact class, which is led by the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

In fact, if you combine the 2007 sales of the Mariner with the Escape and the Mazda Tribute, another Escape clone, they are the second-best selling CUV, ahead of the RAV4 but still behind the CR-V.

What the Mariner, Escape and Tribute also offer are gas-electric hybrid models, which with one exception are absent from the other dozen or more CUVs in the compact class. They use Ford Motor Co. technology similar to that in the most popular hybrid, the Toyota Prius. (Saturn also offers a hybrid Vue).

The difficulty is that it’s still difficult to make a case, in strictly economic terms, for the hybrid. On the Mariner, for example, the hybrid model has a starting price $3,140 higher than the subject here, which is the top-of-the-line gas-engine Premier model, with all-wheel drive.

The hybrid rates 29/27 miles per gallon on the government’s city/highway cycle, compared to 17/22 for the Premier. Figuring gasoline at $3 a gallon and 12,000 miles a year, you would start realizing savings only after about three and one-half years.

Obviously, economics is not the only reason people buy cars. Environmental friendliness is another. Those folks would go for the hybrid.

On the other hand, many customers would opt for the tested Mariner Premier, with its 200-horsepower V6 engine, four-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive and overall drivability.

It has a staring price of $26,470, which includes a long list of standard equipment: anti-lock brakes, traction and yaw control, a roll sensor, side-curtain air bags, automatic climate control, remote locking, 16-inch alloy wheels, V6 engine and leather upholstery.

Options on the tested Mariner included a navigation system, Sirius satellite radio, heated mirrors and front seats, roof rack crossbars and a cargo cover, which brought the suggested delivered price up to $29,720.

That was about $700 more than a similarly-equipped Honda CR-V, and it entailed advantages and disadvantages. The vehicles weigh exactly the same, are within two inches in overall length and have similar passenger and cargo capacity.

On the advantage side, the Mariner has a 200-horsepower V6 engine, compared to the CR-V’s 166-horsepower four-cylinder engine. Disadvantages include the Mariner’s four-speed automatic transmission versus the CR-V’s five-speed and, more importantly, lower fuel economy. The Mariner’s city/highway 17/22 miles per gallon is considerably less than the Honda’s 20/26.

The Mariner also has disc brakes up front and drum brakes in back, compared to the four-wheel disc brakes on the Honda.

Generally speaking, disc brakes are more effective, though more expensive. On both cars, the anti-lock brakes are standard.

For 2008, the Mercury mavens expended effort to give the Mariner a new look, via a bigger grille and new exterior sheet metal. They also re-did the accommodations to blunt growing consumer dissatisfaction with discount-store interiors, and they added insulation to provide a more serene motoring experience.

The Mariner rolls quietly on the highway, with minimal intrusion of wind, road and mechanical noise.

Up front, the seats on the test vehicle were upholstered in leather with alcantara inserts, which is a sort of faux suede. Light colored, they looked to be susceptible to terminal soiling. The seats themselves were fairly flat, but supportive and reasonably comfortable.

Instruments now feature blue lighting, and there’s a jack in the audio system for a portable music player. A readout on the top of the dash displays inside and outside temperatures as well as radio and climate control information. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope.

The navigation screen, which also incorporates the radio information, is the same as those on other Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products. It is intuitive and easy to use.

In back, there is room for three adult passengers. With almost a flat floor, there’s knee and foot room for the center passenger and, surprisingly, the designers also gave that person a reasonably comfortable seating position. In most vehicles, the center-rear passenger is disrespected.

The cargo area, which holds more than 29 cubic feet of stuff, is well-shaped and finished. There’s also an extra divided storage area under the cargo floor.

On the road, the V6 engine delivers adequate power and the transmission shifts smoothly. Handling is acceptable, although the electric power steering is a bit numb. The suspension system is biased toward a good ride, so the Mariner won’t be able to keep up with more capable-handling vehicles on curving roads.

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