The Mercury Mariner offers everything most buyers seek in a small sport-utility vehicle, including the high, commanding seating position and lots of cargo space, with more maneuverability and better fuel economy than behemoth, truck-based SUVs. The Mariner is based on the superb Ford Escape.
The Mariner has a bit more truck-style flair than some of its competitors; its ride height and seating position, for example, are higher than that of the Honda CR-V or Nissan Rogue, and it can tow up to 3,500 pounds, which is substantially more than most vehicles in the class. Still, the 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. 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 a typical sedan. The finish is upscale and pleasing, and feature function and switches are among the best. Standard safety features include AdvanceTrac electronic stability control with Roll Stability Control.
The base four-cylinder engine 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. 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, 153-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, the Mariner is intended to offer a step up in status over the Ford Escape. Yet it's worth noting that the Escape can be equipped identically to the Mariner, and with the same level of features the prices are essentially the same. In either case, a leather-upholstered V6 4WD, with premium audio, navigation, dual-zone climate control and other options will be over $30,000. At the higher end of the product line, the differences between the Mariner and the Escape really come down to styling details.
For 2010 the changes are worthwhile but not major in nature. An Integrated Blind Spot Mirror, MyKey programmable vehicle key, Rear View Camera System, and Active Park Assist are now available, and the Mariner also features hands-free SYNC with Traffic, Directions & Information. All the features improve safety, reduce driver distractions and help drivers on the road.
In a general, impressionistic way, the Mariner 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. There's a lot of brightwork on the Mariner front and rear, but it's mostly a satiny, aluminum finish rather than conventional chrome. It gives the Mariner a more understated, slightly more upscale look than the closely related Ford Escape.
The high beltline creates the impression that the windows are short or narrow, emphasizing the Mariner's truck-like look. The taillights have the same eyebrow shape as the headlights, which helps connect front and rear. The lenses are clear, with red and white clusters.
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 Mariner’s cabin contributes considerably to its overall refinement and appeal. This interior isn't a great leap forward in any particular fashion, but it's carefully thought out and well executed. Ergonomic function is excellent, and the visual impact is good.
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 the materials give the impression of quality. The headliner is plush and molded to the contour of the roof.
The leather upholstery is thick and tailored tautly around the seats. 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 seats should have enough cushion and support to limit fatigue during a long commute.
The 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.
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 display that shows compass heading, 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 window buttons sit almost perfectly at the fingertips. With elbows on the door rest and center console, arms are even and hands rest nicely at nine and three 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 be adjusted less frequently than the others. The auxiliary audio jack is at the bottom of the center stack, opposite a 12-volt power point, and just above a lined bin where you can set an iPod with reasonable assurance that it will stay put for the entire trip home.
Our Mariner Hybrid had the optional touch-screen navigation system, which is becoming one of our favorites from any manufacturer. Its biggest weakness is the display screen, which is smaller than those in some other brands. Yet the graphics are clear and easy to read to the smaller details, at night or wearing sunglasses in bright daylight. More importantly, the system is easy to use with minimal distraction, and easy to learn.
It's an expensive tool (or toy, depending on your perspective), but we particularly recommend the nav system with the Mariner Hybrid. In the hybrid, it includes an Energy display that demonstrates in real-time the fuel-saving benefits of hybrid drive. By paying some attention to the graphs, you'll find yourself becoming a more environmentally friendly and fiscally efficient motorist. It can be fun to see how efficiently you can drive, or not. We wish Mercury offered this feature without the nav system.
Interior storage creates another Mariner strength, or at least storage within reach of the front passengers. Start with that rubber-lined, slide-proof bin in front of the shifter, which is great for iPods, phones, glasses, a wallet or change. High-trim Mariners feature swing-down overhead bins for glasses and garage-door remotes. The glovebox is big enough for some stuff beyond the owner's manual and documents, and there are decent-sized bins molded in the door bottoms (though whatever goes here tends to slide as the Mariner slows or accelerates). The crown jewel is the center console, which allows stacking of smaller items inside and hiding valuables, like a digital camera or MP3 player, at the very bottom under a tray.
The rear seatback could be a little too upright for some tastes, but otherwise the rear bench is comfortable. There's plenty of knee room and ample headroom. A medium-sized adult should stay comfortable in the outboard seats for an hour or more, assuming the person in front isn't terribly tall or pushing the front seat all the way rearward. The middle space works best for kids in a booster seat. There are cupholders and a power point on the back of the center console, but storage space for rear passengers is limited to bins at the bottoms of the rear doors.
Cargo capacity is 66.4 cubic feet, with 30.9 cubic feet behind the rear seat. On the plus side, the extra battery pack under floor in the Mariner Hybrid does not significantly encroach on storage space.
Further, the Mariner's cargo space is easy to access. The rear seat folds quickly, 60/40, and the bottom can be removed to make a perfectly flat load floor. The fold-flat front-passenger seat is a great addition, too. The design seems to do nothing to diminish the seat's comfort, yet its back can fold forward to a level on the same plane as the folded rear seat and cargo floor. This allows the Mariner to carry much longer items securely inside.
There aren't a lot of frills in that cargo area, but the essentials are there: Tie-downs, and an optional cargo shade and under-floor bin that's deep enough for a small load of groceries. The bin may be more valuable as a place to separate wet items like beach towels. The carpet behind the rear seat is also reversible, so the rubber-coated bottom can be turned up.
Mercury invested a lot of time and money reducing interior noise, starting with thicker side glass. The windshield has an acoustic laminate sandwiched between two layers of glass. The headliner has significant sound-deadening capability, and the carpeting is quite thick. The net result is that, in overall noise, vibration and harshness control, the Mariner is near the upper end of the competition.
The Mariner seems a bit more like a real truck than competitors such as the Honda CR-V. That's partly due to the Mariner's more upright styling, but mostly because its ride height and seating position are higher than other small, unitbody (sedan-style) sport-utilities. The difference is a character issue more than a genuine, functional phenomenon, and it's not bad at all. The Mariner never feels tippy on the road and it's quite pleasant to drive. Both the four- and six-cylinder engines deliver good response and adequate acceleration, and the high seating position offers a good view when scooting through traffic, which can be accomplished with the same confidence you might have in a standard sedan.
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.
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. 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.
The Mariner Hybrid's primary source of power remains its gasoline engine. It's nearly identical to the 2.5-liter four in gasoline-only models, except that it runs on something called the Atkinson cycle, which enhances fuel efficiency. 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, 31 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 the 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 to 1,000 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 transfers to the drive wheels, the Mariner Hybrid has a continuously variable transmission, which has no conventional gears. Instead, it has metal bands that adjust to best match the engine's rpm to vehicle speed. In typical driving, there's no hesitation as “gear” ratios shift, no uneven surges of speed and less variance in the noise coming from under the hood as the Mariner picks up speed. There's just smooth, even acceleration.
With the stereo cranked up to cover ambient noise, a driver will have a hard time knowing when the gas engine starts or shuts off at stop lights, or when the Hybrid is rolling along on electric power alone. The transitions are generally seamless.
We're not sure what protocol determines when the Mariner Hybrid operates on electric power. In fact, it seemed to operate in electric mode less frequently than we might have expected. At times the gas engine ran when we thought it might not have to, and at times it didn't even shut off at a stop light. For the most part, we drove the Hybrid as we would any other test car, which is fairly aggressively, using the accelerator as if someone else was buying the gas, and we still saw some improvement in fuel economy.
Just not an incredible improvement. Our normal rounds include more city than highway driving, though rarely in true rush-hour traffic, plus a few extracurricular, test-specific maneuvers. In this routine, by our best calculation, we found an improvement of 10 to 12 percent over what we've seen with a conventional four-cylinder. We expect most consumers will do better, or at least those with long, traffic-laden commutes. Still, the real-world fuel savings with a hybrid will depend heavily on how, where and when you drive. For guestimation, EPA mileage numbers may be the best tool.
To get the best fuel economy, Hybrid drivers will want to be gentle on the gas pedal. That will maximize the instances when the Mariner travels only on electric power. Dip the pedal quickly, or much past a quarter of its travel, and the gas engine restarts immediately to satisfy what the control electronics determine to be a demand for serious acceleration. Even if a driver is not going to exceed 20 mph, which is well within the limit of electric-only speed, the gas engine will start if the pedal application is too strong. It probably helps to stop slowly, too. Long, steady, coast-down stops, using more engine compression than wheel brakes, are best for charging the batteries. We surmise that short, quick stops from road speeds may keep the engine from shutting off at a red light. The control system may sense aggressive stops as emergencies, or just sporting, aggressive driving, and leave the engine running for more action.
For the best economy, we also recommend the optional navigation system, which on the Hybrid includes an energy-meter function that graphically illustrates how well you're doing at saving fuel. It includes instantaneous and average fuel economy readouts, and tells you when the gas engine is running, when the electric motor is doing the work and when the batteries are charging. It's a good tool to learn how to maximize economy with the Mariner Hybrid.
The other engines are both decent performers. The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder delivers good power at high revs for those who like to wind it up, and adequate torque at any speed. With a balance shaft to offset vibration, it's also smoother than some of Ford's previous four-cylinder engines.
The 240-hp, 3.0-liter V6 engine delivers stronger acceleration, and about as much torque as any small SUV is likely to need. It has no obvious torque peak, or accompanying burst of thrilling acceleration, but its power band is broad. In day-to-day driving, it never lugs, strains or feels as if it's out of breath. It is also flexible-fuel capable, so it can operate on E85.
Both the four-cylinder and the V6 engines are matched with a very smooth, electronically controlled six-speed automatic, which offers ideal ratios for all speeds and contributes to the Mariner’s exceptional fuel economy.
In general, the Mariner handles well, with a refined feel. Part of the credit goes to the electric power-assisted steering system (EPS), which operates with an electric motor rather than a hydraulic pump driven by the engine. One of the advantages is increased efficiency, because a conventional, belt-driven steering pump takes a bit of the engine's power just to operate. That's power that's not being used to move the vehicle.
In the Mariner's case, the electric power steering also improves steering feel. With EPS, there's a nice balance between steering assist at parking-lot speeds and decent feel on the highway. The steering tracks more steadily than before, with less adjustment or correction required over uneven surfaces. It's direct and accurate with no dead spot in the center, and there's enough feeling when you turn the wheel to impart a sense of control.
In all, the Mariner delivers a ride and handling balance that comes closer to a sedan than a truck. Its ride is comfortable, but never wobbly or floaty, over a variety of road surfaces, including expansion joints and shallow potholes. Transient response is surprisingly good, meaning the Mariner maintains reasonable composure in a series of left-right-left lane-change maneuvers.
The Mariner’s brakes are discs in front, with drums in the rear, and ABS is standard. The Mariner stops in plenty of time, with no brake fade in any typical on-road driving circumstances. The ABS system is well tuned, keeping the brakes right at the threshold between maximum stopping force and wheel lock, and allowing the driver to maintain steering control in a full-panic stop.
Hybrid or coventional, Mariner makes a good all-season vehicle in all climates. It does not make a good off-road vehicle, despite a bit more ground clearance than some competitors. The optional all-wheel drive (AWD) system is tuned for driving more on slippery pavement than dirt or gravel. It delivers engine power to the appropriate wheels, and can switch power front to rear or side to side, and theoretically can send 100 percent of the engine's power to either the front or rear wheels.
The system takes a lot of the stress out of driving on wet, slushy or snowy roads. It helps maximize forward progress on slippery surfaces, and its transfer of power to wheels with the best traction is rarely noticed by the driver, who can focus simply on using the gas smoothly and steering between the lines.
Of course, the Mariner is built on a front-wheel-drive platform developed primarily for sedans, and like most small SUVs, the 2WD models are front-wheel drive. With caution, it can handle reasonably level gravel or dirt trails. But if there is no graded path, forget about it, and if the way is much steeper than you'd attempt in a car, forget about that, too. Shoppers seeking a small SUV with real off-road potential should consider a competitor like the Jeep Liberty.
For everyday driving and travel on the road, the Mariner is one of the best.
The 2010 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. 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 various Mariner models in the Detroit area.