- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

The first time I drove the 2009 Mercury Mariner, it was with a Ford engineer. He told me the Mariner I was piloting was using Ford’s new four-cylinder engine. After stomping the accelerator when we got on a lightly used rural two-lane road, I told the guy he was wrong - we must have grabbed the V-6 Mariner by mistake.

When we returned to base, I lifted the hood to prove it. Only the engineer was right - it was the four-cylinder one. Never has the move from 153 horsepower to 171 horsepower felt so convincing.

Revised powertrains are the big story for the Mariner compact crossover this year, and the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder and reworked 3.0-liter V-6 (along with a sweet new six-speed automatic transmission) have done nothing but good things for the Mariner’s case as a pretty smart choice if you want something SUV-ish without the gas-slurping and the bulk.

Even more startling was the muscle available from the reworked 3.0-liter V-6 in our primary test vehicle. At 240 horsepower, the newly tuned V-6 is 20 percent stronger than the 200-hp Mercury used to squeeze out of this V-6. The change is dramatic: Under the new V-6’s whip, the Mariner squirts around like a jacked-up sports car.

Thanks mostly to that subtle new six-speed automatic transmission (optional with the four-cylinder, standard with the V-6), both engines deliver better fuel economy despite the heaping doses of new power. Those two extra gear ratios really make themselves apparent when cruising, we’re told, helping both engines run at silly-low rpm to save fuel.

What you may like better are the shifts from the new six-speed: firm and authoritative, yet never emitting anything you’d describe as a “jerk.” One gearshift simply blends into another much like you’d expect from a luxury car but without the boozy slur.

The engineers also fussed around with the 2009 Mariner’s suspension tuning. Often, such fettling can be little more than imperceptible, but the tummy-tuck changes to the suspension and steering have dialed in a new level of decisiveness you didn’t know you needed in a compact SUV-thing, until you drive the Mariner with the old suspension.

And the power steering now is electric (to save fuel by eliminated drag on the engine). There’s a long list of cars whose steering feedback has been destroyed by electric power steering - but not the Mariner. Hats off to the engineers for that little miracle, because we’ve seen electric power steering go horribly wrong on vehicles that cost a lot more.

The Mariner is packed with all the expected safety goodies, including anti-lock brakes and skid-correcting stability control. And revised brake tuning has made a difference by generating a more solid and progressive “bite” as you apply pressure to the pedal.

Oh, we always hated the Mariner’s seats. Somebody was listening. The ‘09 Mariner gets so-called “comfort designed” seats. They work. With that single stroke, the seats now support under the thighs and the lower back, enveloping and supporting. Thanks.

The Mariner’s optional navigation system might be viewed as pricey at $1,995, but it’s a treat - it takes voice commands for a variety of functions, and takes them very well, again thank you. Voice-recognition software used to stink, but no more.

The Mariner and its big brother, the Ford Escape, have combined to be one of the best-selling model lines in the compact crossover market, and it’s easy to see why. The boxy styling hasn’t quite kept up with the times, yet still looks crisp enough to avoid embarrassment.

In no small part thanks to the new engines and automatic transmission, the Mariner has evolved into one of the sharpest-driving models in the segment, and Ford Motor Co. keeps piling on the great comfort-and-convenience features, including the magnificent SYNC onboard infotainment-management system that’s become the envy of the industry.

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