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 compact four-door, five-passenger, sport utility vehicle. If you've seen the Mercury Mountaineer, you've seen the Mariner, albeit an unSanforized one after a trip or two through a hot-water car wash. Granted, the Mariner's headlights are more rectangular, and the fog lamp nacelles are more parallelogram than up-tipped eyebrow, but otherwise, and other than size, there's little visually to distinguish between the larger and smaller Mercury SUVs.
The trademark satin-finish aluminum vertical-bar grille sits on a matching bumper inset, turn indicator lights are housed where the headlamp lenses wrap around the fenders and the central recess in the hood imbues the front fenders with a subtle shoulder look.
Borrowing from European custom, small turn-indicator repeater lights are positioned in the front quarter panels just aft of and slightly above the front wheel wells. Understated cladding preserves and protects the lower door panels and ties together the minimalist front and rear fender flares, nicely finishing the mid-door, horizontal character line optically connecting the front and rear bumpers. The tall glasshouse is properly proportioned to balance the body side panels. The angled C-pillar behind the rear side door accentuates the people-orientation of the Mariner while acknowledging it can haul cargo, too.
From the rear, the Mariner is, well, a sport utility vehicle. There's not much that can be done to stylize a liftgate, taillamps and bumper, other than with trim bits and pieces, and the Mariner's designers did their best with what they had. Tasteful, satin-finish, grille-like accents brace the taillamps. The side character line continues across the liftgate, swelling in the center to form a surround for the license plate recess. Yet another satin-finish inset separates the step-top of the rear bumper and the body-color lower fascia. Bright chrome exhaust tips finish the package.
The Mariner Hybrid is distinguished by a small vent in the driver's side C-pillar, which channels cooling air to the battery pack, Hybrid badging on the liftgate, front doors and acoustic engine cover, and unique 16-inch five-spoke wheels.
To a large extent, what holds for the Mercury Mariner's exterior holds for its interior. If you like the Mountaineer's appointments and look, you'll like the Mariner's, as the designers have hewn closely to theme the larger Mountaineer established.
Seemingly central to the Mariner's essence is satin-finish aluminum, which abounds inside as well as out. From the instrument bezels to the center stack's vertical braces to the shift lever cap to the center console to the logo in the steering wheel hub to the flat surfaces on the door armrests, satin-finish trims and highlights. About the only interior metal surfaces that aren't satin-finish are the chrome inside door handles and accent ringing the shift lever in the center console. The theme is successful and the overall look is one of polish and refinement, helped by wood-grain trim on the center stack and console.
The Hybrid's interior feels a bit more upscale due to its leather trim and two-tone seating and door trim. The instrument panel is slightly different and includes a battery indicator dial, informing the driver which way the current in the electric system is flowing: to the battery during regenerative braking or from the battery to the electric motor when it's operating in assistance of the gasoline engine. The optional Hybrid Energy Audio and Navigation System uses a four-inch color screen to display the energy flow, the state of the electric motor system and the battery pack. It's a valuable tool by providing positive feedback to the driver in search of the best fuel mileage.
The front bucket seats are nicely contoured and bolstered, but we found ourselves squirming around in search of a more comfortable zone after only a short stay.
Cruise control buttons are smoothly integrated into the sides of the steering wheel hub. Power window buttons, however, are of the old-school type, i.e., non-child/curious pet-proof. The stereo, too, shouts standard Ford gear; as functional and easy-to-use as its controls are, they don't quite make premium grade in terms of their appearance. The air conditioning is manual and there's no upgrade to automatic climate control available, not even on the Premier. People who don't take advantage of automatic climate controls anyway won't miss this.
The rear seat, even though a split-to-fold 60/40 unit, is essentially a two-piece bench, as in, not the most accommodating for long drives. On the plus side, all five seating positions have three-point belts and adjustable head restraints.
The rear seat folds almost flat, making for commodious cargo space. Tie-down hooks are provided to secure odd-shaped or mobile objects. The rear quarter panel has open storage bins for smaller items. Front seatbacks host map pockets, as do both front doors. The overhead console (which the optional moonroof displaces) has two swing-down bins. The center console has two cupholders and a shallow bin forward of the shift lever.
Where the Mariner loses points is where its target buyers are most likely to notice: insulation from outside annoyances. For the most part, we found it at best only marginally quieter than the Escape, with road noise and tire hiss clearly audible, and noticeable, if barely, wind whistle from the side windows and mirrors. On the redeeming side, fit and finish in the cabin was up to par, with no buzzes, squeaks or rattles.
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.
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