- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

Finding incremental areas of improving gas mileage was Mercury’s goal for its 2009 Mariner compact crossover utility vehicle. Taking a multi-faceted approach with the design and hardware, it came up with an overall improved vehicle.

Ford Motor Co.’s mission is to get better fuel mileage from its existing models. It has looked high and low throughout every area of the body of the Mercury Mariner to come up with a 1 mile per gallon fuel economy improvement over the 2008 model. They did so many small things that it all adds up to better mileage, a better design and a better-built crossover vehicle. And this multifaceted approach makes good sense.

Take the new tire engineering. The 2009 Mercury Mariner rolls on 16-inch Michelin Latitude Tour low-rolling-resistance tires. Ford says it collaborated with the tire maker for a new, more optimal tire mold design and a new-generation tread for the Latitude Tour tire.

Vehicle dynamics and tire performance are closely linked. Ford and Michelin worked to make the tire performance give the driver of the Mercury Mariner more precise handling, responsive steering and shortened braking distance. This new tire is quieter, resulting in reduced road noise and tire wear. The Mariner’s Latitude Tour tire is also designed to perform better in snow and on wet roads.

The 2009 Mariner got a boost in aerodynamics, which also helps in fuel efficiency. Mercury did not significantly alter the design of the Mariner, but it did find ways to optimize air flow and reduce wind drag, adding rear tire spoilers and extending the front spoiler further over the wheels to redirect air and diminish drag.

Powertrain upgrades were also at the heart of fuel economy on the 2009 Mariner. Mercury engineers retuned the suspension and steering so that the crossover feels more like a car than a truck. The automaker says the retuning results in better control and even tighter cornering capability.

Drivers of the 2009 model Mariner will get a better initial braking response over the previous model year version due to braking system improvements. The vehicle’s anti-lock brakes have also been fined-tuned and a new fuel-saving six-speed automatic transmission is an added refinement to the V-6 model.

The Mariner is offered in two powertrain options. Buyers who want to get the most fuel efficient of the Mariner models will go for the front-wheel-drive 2.5-L four-cylinder model with 171 horsepower, which returns 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. The 2.5L I-4 in the four-wheel-drive configuration is rated at 19/25 mpg.

I drove the $26,790 top-line Mariner model equipped with a 3.0-liter Duratec V-6 rated at 240 horsepower with 233 lb.-ft. of torque. It had EPA ratings of 17/24 mpg. (The FWD version of the V-6 is rated at 18/26 mpg). The test vehicle was loaded with options, bringing the out-the-door price to $32,425.

The icing on the cake - with all these new technical improvements baked in - is the yummy-looking VOGA edition. VOGA in Spanish means fashionable and trend-setting, according to the company. Mercury designers want the VOGA to inspire an emotional connection with the buyer.

My Mariner tester sported the VOGA’s creamy white leather-trimmed seating that looked so delicious against the dark chocolate dashboard and paneling. The 2009 Mariner with the VOGA trim makes you so hungry you’ll want to take a bite out of something - like the road. And go ahead, because the tires can take it.

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