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The Mercury Mariner, based on the Ford Escape, debuted as a 2005 model and was hailed for its responsive handling, smooth road manners and available V6 engine. For 2006, the Mariner continues relatively unchanged except for a new exterior color, interior color, several equipment additions and, the big news, a Mariner Hybrid model for buyers interested in an SUV with better fuel economy and reduced emissions.
Mariner comes standard with front-wheel drive (2WD) and a four-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It's easily and affordably upgraded with all-wheel drive (4WD) for stable traction in the snow and a powerful V6 for more responsive performance. The 2006 Mariner Hybrid, with the same gasoline/electric powertrain that was first offered in the 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid, comes only with all-wheel-drive and a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).
The 2006 Mercury Mariner continues unchanged on the outside, its slick and clean design accented by Mercury's avant-garde styling cues. Inside is a pleasant and calming cabin with room enough for the kind of stuff people who are moving up from the Milan sedan or retreating from the more truck-like Mountaineer need to haul around.
As part of a carefully scripted, and enormously expensive, re-birth and rejuvenation of the Mercury brand, the Mariner is intended to offer a step up in status over the Ford Escape.
Compact sport utility vehicles are popular because they're smaller and easier to park than midsize SUVs like the Ford Explorer. They're also lighter and have more fuel-efficient engines and, of course, they're less expensive. Yet they offer cargo space with fold-down back seats and a commanding view of the road that comes with a higher seating position.
The Mercury Mariner is a good example. It's a nice package. The size and basics are right. Fuel economy is respectable with the four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines and downright impressive with the Mariner Hybrid. Plus, it's affordable even when fully optioned.
The Mercury Mariner is a sport utility vehicle, not a car, so you should not expect anything like a boulevard cruiser ride. And you won't get one. But you will get one of the better rides in the Mariner's class of compact SUVs. Drawn as it is on the foundation of the number-one selling Ford Escape, which has been around in current configuration long enough to have been thoroughly debugged in the basic elements, the Mariner accounts for itself better than most in the class.
In the power department, the V6 delivers as expected, pulling readily and cleanly through the heart of the power band, if not with an abundance of gusto; this is a consequence, no doubt, of less-than-impressive torque. Also, and as most engines in this class do, it labors at the extreme top end, but few if any Mariner drivers are likely to explore that territory.
We haven't driven the Convenience model with the four-cylinder engine, but our experience in the identically powered Ford Escape showed that it delivers adequate power. Naturally, we preferred the V6 for its stronger response.
The four-speed automatic transmission works well with either engine, admirably holding the appropriate gear for extended periods when stressed by terrain or load.
Nor have we had a chance at the Mariner Hybrid, but we expect it to perform briskly due to its 155 horsepower when both the electric traction motor and gasoline engine operate together under full acceleration. Our experience in the virtually identical Ford Escape Hybrid was extremely positive, so we're inclined to recommend the Mariner Hybrid highly. What we found with the Escape Hybrid is that the driver does not need to know anything or do anything differently than he or she would in a regular gas model. It's smooth and powerful and pleasant. The Mariner Hybrid rates an EPA-estimated 33 mpg City and 29 mpg Highway. Note that the city mileage is higher than the highway mileage, the opposite of gasoline-powered vehicles and a benefit of the hybrid's regenerative braking. Compare those figures to the four-cylinder all-wheel-drive Mariner's EPA estimate of 21/24 City/Highway, and the potential savings become more clear. The all-wheel-drive six-cylinder Mariner's EPA mileage estimate is an even more compelling argument for the Hybrid, as it manages just 19/23 mpg on the EPA test cycles. Our experience is that hybrids don't achieve the fuel economy of the EPA tests but that skilled drivers are rewarded with impressive levels of efficiency.
The Hybrid's CVT transmission, which delivers power smoothly without needing to shift gears either up or down, should be a delight for commuting and stop-and-go urban traffic. CVTs take a little getting used to as under acceleration they seamlessly adjust the ratio to keep the engine operating in the optimum power band, which sometimes has the feeling of a slipping clutch or snowmobile engine. Drivers who are able to embrace this are rewarded with smooth, efficient operation.
The 4WD system available for most models operates seamlessly, smoothly rerouting power without hesitation through its computer-controlled clutch to the rear wheels almost before the front wheels begin to lose grip. It will comfortably and confidently master snow-filled parking lots at the ski lodge and muddy driveways at the weekend cabin. However, the Mariner is not designed to navigate truly rugged terrain off road.
The Mariner tracks well and rides comfortably at highway speeds for a vehicle of its size and stature. Steering is certain, with good on-center feel. The suspension is tuned to conquer all but the truly egregious pavement pockmarks. There's little body lean in curves.
The brakes on our V6 model were responsive and the pedal feel was solid. We managed to avoid situations requiring the intervention of the ABS, but again, from experience with the Escape, should the occasion arise, you'll experience a well-modulated stop telegraphed
The 2006 Mercury Mariner is a good choice among compact SUVs. It's a good road car and the back seats fold flat for hauling stuff. The V6 model delivers the better performance than the standard four-cylinder. Whether the extra cost for the Hybrid can be offset by the increased fuel savings is a matter for the mathematicians and your own driving habits, but there is the comforting thought that fewer harmful emissions are coming from the tailpipe than from a full gasoline-powered SUV.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Jose, California; Greg Brown contributed to this report from Los Angeles.