Improvements to the 2008 Mercury Mariner cover the spectrum, adding both safety features and refinement without altering the basic character that has made this small SUV a popular choice across the United States.
Mariner has a bit more truck-style flair than some of its competitors. The new look for 2008 replicates Mercury's mid-size, truck-based Mountaineer sport-utility. Mariner's ride height and seating position, for example, are higher than that of the Honda CR-V or Nissan Rogue. Mariner can tow up to 3,500 pounds, which is substantially more than most vehicles in the class.
Still, Mariner delivers the advantages of other unit-body, car-based SUVs such as the CR-V. The Mariner is more car-like on the road than the Jeep Liberty, for example. Its smooth ride and reasonably agile handling make for pleasant driving, and its compact dimensions make it easy to maneuver and park.
The Mariner offers comfortable seating for four, or five in a pinch, with more headroom than before. Folding the rear seats opens a good-sized cargo area with a flat floor, and space behind the seat surpasses that in the trunk of the typical sedan. Interior storage options have improved for 2008. The finish is more upscale and pleasing, and feature function and switches are among the best. New standard safety features, including a Roll Stability Control system, reset the class benchmark.
The engines are one of the few things carried over from the previous Mariner. The base four-cylinder is adequate, if not particularly exciting, and all variants, including the V6 and Mariner Hybrid, deliver good fuel economy ratings compared to the competition.
The Hybrid drives like a conventional Mariner, for the most part, and demands little additional effort or knowledge from the driver in exchange for improved mileage. Along with the Ford Escape, it's the only full hybrid available in the class. Like other Mariners, the gas-electric Hybrid is offered with either front- or all-wheel drive. The Hybrid models are powered by a more fuel-efficient, 133-hp Atkinson Cycle version of the four-cylinder engine that works in concert with a 70 kilowatt electric motor, all coupled to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. Unlike some mild hybrid SUVs, the Mariner Hybrid can run on 100 percent electric power up to about 25 mph.
In line with a plan to rejuvenate the Mercury brand, Mariner is intended to offer a step up in status over the Escape. Yet it's worth noting that the Escape can be equipped identically to the Mariner, and with the same stuff the prices are essentially the same. In either case, a leather-upholstered V6 4WD, with premium audio, navigation, dual-zone climate control and rear sonar sells for about $30,000. At the higher end of the product line, the differences between Mariner and Escape really comes down to styling details.
Mercury Mariner ($20,920); Mariner 4WD ($22,670); Premium ($23,820); Premium 4WD ($25,770); Hybrid ($27,020); Hybrid 4WD ($28,770)
The outside mirrors, for example, are larger than before, offering a broader view to the sides and rear. Yet Mercury engineers tailored the shape so the bigger mirrors generate less noise as air speeds over them. The roof, too, is designed to reduce interior noise. Recessed channels running its length are intended to move air more quietly over the surface. Horizontal ribs underneath the panel add structure, which limits flex in the metal and reduces booming noise inside at high speeds. In all, it's part of the overall refinement that makes the redesigned Mariner a more pleasant place to spend time.
We're not trying to minimize the changes to Mariner's styling, because they're significant. The front end, liftgate, headlights and taillights are different. The beltline, or that crease just below the side windows, has been raised, and none of the major body panels are common to previous Mariners. It's just that the redesign is evolutionary, with the most obvious changes in the details. In a general, impressionistic way, the new Mariner still looks a lot like a shrunken version of the larger Mercury Mountaineer SUV. And while it may have a sedan-style unitbody with fully independent suspension underneath, the Mariner has a more conventional, upright, truck-style look than a lot of its competitors.
It starts with the big, bold, waterfall grille, which immediately attracts the eye from any angle on the front of the vehicle. The new grille is larger than before, with wider openings between the bars. The badge in the middle is larger, too, and there are smaller Mercury badges integrated inside the headlight lenses. There's more brightwork on this Mariner front and rear, but it's mostly a satiny, aluminum finish rather than conventional chrome. It gives Mariner a more understated, slightly more upscale look than the closely related Ford Escape.
That higher beltline creates the impression that the windows are shorter or narrower, promoting a pillbox effect that emphasizes Mariner's truck look. The taillights have the same eyebrow shape as the headlights, which helps connect front and rear. The lenses are clear, with read and white clusters underneath.
We particularly like a couple of features in back of the Mariner. A step pad on the bumper provides secure footing for anyone who steps up to put something on the roof rack, and the two-piece tailgate is handy. The rear glass can be popped open with the key fob, so dropping smaller items like a gym bag into the cargo area is easier than it might be with some competitors, which require hefting the entire gate upward.
The brushed, satiny aluminum trim that abounds outside the Mariner carries over inside, and anyone who likes the effect should find the Mariner a pleasant place to spend time. The look and feel of materials are improved throughout. The headliner is plush and molded to the contour of the roof.
The base seats have rich, suede-like Alcantara inserts; the optional leather upholstery is thick and tailored tautly around the seats. The most impressive feature may be the woven-look, rubberized trim on the dash and console. It looks sporty and suited to a more expensive car. The low point is the grained plastic on the door panels, which feels hard and looks a bit cheap. Fortunately, it's not enough to overwhelm the good stuff most everywhere else, and many others fall down in this area as well.
The front seats are smaller than those in a larger sport utility. We'd guess drivers with wide frames might find them small. There isn't an abundance of side bolstering, either, but that makes it easier to slide into the seats, and there's enough to keep occupants solidly in place for the type of driving a typical Mariner owner is likely to undertake. For most drivers, the seat should have enough cush to prevent butt numbing and enough support to limit fatigue during a long commute.
Gauges are clustered in a shaded binnacle that can be absorbed in a glance: Tachometer left, speedometer right, with fuel and coolant temperature in the middle, along with an easy-to-read trip- and systems-info display. We loved this, because it includes a menu that allows the driver to easily cycle through and change features like headlight-off delay and auto-locking.
The gauges and switches feature Ford's corporate signature backlighting style, which the company calls Ice Blue. No gripe here, as the bluish white is crisper and brighter than conventional green-yellow or orange lighting. We're not terribly fond of the speedometer script, however. It lacks differentiation beyond the big even numbers, so it's hard to tell quickly what speed you're driving unless you are traveling precisely 20, 40 or 60 mph.
The dashboard is tall and squarish, but attractive. Big vents at the ends move lots of air, and there are two more in the middle near the top of the center stack. These can be aimed to avoid blasting the driver's hands or face with a rush of air. At the very top, nearly eye level, sits a neat TFT display that shows compass direction, date and time, exterior temperature and interior temp settings.
Measured by the placement and function of switches and controls, the Mariner is first rate, and examples are easy to find. When the driver rests his or her left forearm on the door rest, the windows buttons sit almost perfectly at the fingertips. With elbows on the door rest and center console, arms are even and hands rest nicely at 9 and 3 on the steering wheel. The mirror adjustor sits on the door pillar, and it's easy to reach when the driver's head is in driving position. One easy-to-use stalk controls the blinkers and all wiper/washer functions. Steering-wheel controls for cruise and audio work without moving hands from the driving position.
The primary audio and climate controls are even better. The volume and station-selector knobs are good sized, but more importantly, they are raised substantially from the stereo plate, rather than nearly flat to the surface as they are in many vehicles. The radial switches for fan and temperature are also big and easy to find. Picking nits, the pushbuttons to control airflow direction and the rear defogger are a bit small, but they tend to
All Mariners, from front-drive four-cylinders to all-wheel-drive V6s to the Hybrid, have some of the best EPA mileage ratings in the class. All have a firm, comfortable ride, without the roly-poly mush quality or the jarring clanks that can characterize conventional truck-based SUVs with tall, off-road tires and long-travel suspensions. Improvements for 2008, including increased air-conditioning power, an electric power steering system, better noise management and changes in suspension tuning, raise the level of refinement above previous Mariners.
The Mariner Hybrid delivers essentially the same performance as the gasoline V6, with very little except improved mileage to give away its hybrid powertrain. Few drivers will notice any substantial, functional differences with the Hybrid in day-to-day use. This is a full hybrid, meaning it can run exclusively on electric power, but there's no power cord needed. The battery pack is automatically recharged by the gasoline engine and by regenerative braking, which captures energy that is otherwise wasted when a vehicle looses momentum, then sends it to the batteries for storage.
By combining a four-cylinder gasoline engine with the boost from an electric motor, the Hybrid can deliver a significant fuel-economy improvement and reduce emissions. The Mariner Hybrid can operate on the electric motor up to about 25 mph to maximize in-city fuel economy, and for 2008 it's available with all-wheel drive. .
The Mariner Hybrid's primary source of power remains its gasoline engine. It's nearly identical to the 2.3-liter four in gasoline-only models, except that it runs on something called the Atkinson cycle, which improves its fuel efficiency but reduces horsepower by 20 (to 133). The companion, 70-kilowatt electric motor will kick in when a driver demands full acceleration and deliver more torque to the wheels, or it can power the Mariner Hybrid by itself in certain circumstances, such as creeping along in a traffic jam or rolling through a parking lot. Bottom line, the Hybrid model delivers acceleration times comparable to the gas-only V6, with a 55 percent improvement over gas-only four-cylinder models in city mpg, according to the EPA (34 city, 30 highway for the Hybrid 2WD).
The Hybrid delivers excellent acceleration at lower speeds. Floor it at 20 mph, and it will snap heads back toward head rests. Floor the Hybrid 2WD at a stop sign, and it can squeal its front tires like a hot rod. To be sure, its tires are harder than those on other Mariners and designed for maximum efficiency, which means less rolling resistance, and less grip. The only real performance issue compared to gasoline-only Mariners is a reduction in maximum towing capacity from 3,500 pounds for the V6 4WD (best in class) to 1000 pounds for the Hybrid (still enough for a personal watercraft or dirt bikes)
Few will notice a significant difference between the Hybrid and a conventional Mariner, except when the Hybrid shuts itself off at stop lights or glides quietly through a parking lot on electric power. Indeed, the Hybrid is a bit quieter, probably smoother, in all circumstances. In order to minimize the power lost as it transfe
The 2008 Mercury Mariner offers front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, competitive four- or six-cylinder engines and the Hybrid package, which works essentially as the conventional models do. Fuel mileage for all models, and towing capacity, rank with the best in class. Substantial improvements for 2008 add safety features, refinement, comfort and more style. For all-purpose, reasonably efficient daily transport on the road, the Mariner rates among the best smaller SUVs. Shoppers seeking genuine off-road potential should look elsewhere.
J.P. Vettraino filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Mariner in the Detroit area.