Gas prices are reasonable again and cars have never been such deals. Perhaps that sport-ute you've always wanted is looking good. Perhaps. On one shoulder is that little guy dressed in red saying "Do it, you deserve it!"&nbsp; On the other is Al Gore asking "Who's going to teach polar bears to swim endurance distance? You?"&nbsp;
Fortunately no animals were impacted in this week's review of the Mercury Mariner hybrid. This compact ute -- about the size of a Honda CR-V -- may be the perfect compromise for those who's conscience, if not Big Al, is nagging them. The size is good for a family of four and it's the most fuel efficient sport-ute money can buy. Driving with a normally weighted foot, real world gas mileage is an observed 29 MPG for the front-wheel tester I've had for a week. Besides, you want Mr. Gore off your shoulders. He is a large man.
Everyone loves twins
Mariner and Ford Escape (and the Mazda Tribute HEV if you live in California) are essentially the same car with some trim differences. &nbsp;Escape is the outdoorsy one of the family, dressing much like an F-150 truck. Mercury's mission is to appeal to women, so Mariner gets a sleeker fashion sense. Both got serious sheetmetal makeovers for 2008. For 2009, Ford made some significant changes under that new wardrobe. The structure gets new fortification making it more stout when slamming over giant potholes on the way to Sierra Club meetings.&nbsp;&nbsp;
Things have changed with the drivetrain too. The engine grows from 2.3 to 2.5 liters, making 153 horsepower. Unlike the standard Mariner 2.5 inline 4 cylinder, hybrids use an .
That's teamed up with a 94 horse electric motor. All totaled up, net horsepower is 177. The new model is quicker off the line and Ford engineers have massaged the hybrid system so the transition from electric to gas is much smoother. This is all good stuff.
Mariner hybrid uses a Continuously Variable Transmission. Typically CVT feel like they're slipping and sliding when gliding around their infinite gear ratios. Mariner hybrid's tranny has been recalibrated for '09 to feel like it has the distinct shift points of a conventional transmission, like the one found in a standard Mariner. It eliminates much of the drone.
Mariner does the hybrid things we know and love
By now you probably know hybrids pull away silently with an electric motor; the gas engine kicks in when more power is needed. Remember, they don't get plugged in. Battery charging is done when coasting or braking. When Mariner comes to a halt, the gas engine automatically shuts down (the tach dropping into a green zone to let you know). Like Prius, there's an LCD display that shows the power routing, plus a "video game" mode that makes efficient driving a fun challenge. There's a meter on the gauge cluster that tells you how efficient you driving style is.
Turn the ignition key on a Mariner hybrid and the gas engine fires up. That's not always the case with hybrids but Ford's research found owners like the reassurance that their car is on and running. With a fully charged battery and a throttle foot as light as an endangered California Condor feather, Mariner can travel a mile or so at up to 40 miles an hour on electric power alone. Maxing out the electric range has the kids cheering whenever I cover significant range with no gas. I'm sure that drivers behind me curse my glacial acceleration. Driving moderately I'm seeing 29 miles to the gallon overall. No guilt there. The official EPA numbers are 34 city/31 highway for front drivers, 29/27 for all-wheel drive.
All-wheel drive Mariners have no driveshaft to the rear wheels. Instead, an electric motor provides power when more acceleration or traction is needed. Toyota does the same with its Highlander hybrid and RX450h. Folks who need serious mud and snow performance might consider the regular Mariner that's powered solely by gasoline. To run the AC the gas engine needs to stay on. An economy mode allows the gas engine to shut down hybrid-style at stoplight but it does the same to the air conditioning. The slight temp fluctuation is certainly tolerable for a minute.
Saves gas. More fun to drive
For 2009, driving dynamics of Ford's hybrid utes are much improved. Mariner is quicker but a rocket this is not. I'd say 0-60 happens in about 9.5 seconds, an improvement of a full second or so. As advertised, the transition from electric to gas power really is smoother that last year's model though it can still be easily detected. With new chassis and structure enhancements the whole car corners better, feeling more of one piece. That's not to say it's my top pick, I prefer the overall feel of CR-V and Vue. Mariner wants to remind you ever so often that it's a sport-ute, not a Town Car. Electronic roll and stability control is finally available on Mariner and Escape. It's standard.&nbsp;
Improved brake pedal modulation feels like a brake pedal now and less like a bowl of oatmeal. Braking power is hardly best-in-class though. Mariner/Escape uses drum brakes instead of disks on the rear wheels and the performance shows it.&nbsp;&nbsp; &nbsp;
Department of the interior
Like the exterior, Mariner's cabin was improved last year. Overall materials and design are average in class with a lot of faux aluminum trim. The rugged chunky design theme reflects the ute mentality, using a lot of different textures and patterns. Front chairs get side torso airbags to augment the full curtain units and eco-friendly soy-based foam padding. Wonder if it's edible in emergencies &hellip; Go with the cloth seats and they're made of recycled materials. A low mounted parking brake release is quite a reach. On the plus side it's the only abdominal workout I got this week. The leather wrapped steering wheel tilts but does not telescope.&nbsp;
Controls are simple and intuitive. Drivers and passengers who might argue about the earth's warming or cooling can co-exist with dual zone climate control. A standard home style 110V power outlet is standard. So is Microsoft Sync, a nice tech package that makes iPods and cell phones hands-free. It even reads incoming text messages and can send pre-programmed messages back (the best one being "I'm driving right now, l'll get back to you when it's safe"). Feeling blue? The color of the interior lighting can be changed (green maybe?). The nav screen is larger now with an excellent interface. No back up camera though, only sensors that beep.
The Merc will haul four comfortably. Putting three adults in the back means they know each other pretty well. There's no folding center armrest. Cup holders mounted on the rear of the front center console are a reach and down near your feet the seat backs and floor hardware could be trimmed up better.&nbsp;
The "U" in SUV means "utility" and Mariner does what you'd expect for cargo. Seats split and fold 60/40. It's not a simple flip-forward operation. The cushion has to tilt up first and headrests need to be removed before the backs fold flat. The front passenger seatback doesn't fold flat to accommodate ladders and surf boards.
Batteries included.&nbsp; TP optional.
The battery pack is mounted in the cargo area floor under the carpet. This 330-volt nickel metal-hydride pack is expensive, part of the reason Mariner hybrid starts at around 31 grand. Hybrids have a battery vent built into the driver's side rear window. I point this out to fellow car geeks who like to spot these kinds of things without resorting to the easier method of looking at all those "hybrid" badges.
When loading lots of small items in the trunk like, say, individual rolls of bath tissue, Mariner's back window opens separately from the main hatch. That way they don't roll out the back. In the always popular Costco TP Trunk Test, Mariner and its twin Escape are average in class at 8 biodegradable packs.
Speaking of durability, Escape hybrids have been pressed into taxi service in New York City and San Francisco for the past few years. NYC taxi service is cruel and unusual punishment folks, and I have to believe hilly SF is even worse. Apparently the Ford hybrids have proven very durable and reliable after hundreds of miles of service. In civilian duty these rigs should do you well.
In the Northwest Auto Press Association "Mudfest" competition for sport-utes, Ford Escape snagged the "Best Green SUV" title for 2008. There have been many discussions on whether hybrids, with their batteries and extra drive components, are really environmentally friendly. I've read the articles and looked at it closely and have come to the conclusion that it's difficult to honestly know how eco-friendly they are. But there's no denying they use less fuel and spew out fewer emissions. That has to be a good thing especially if it stays on the road for over 10 years.
My well optioned front-wheel drive tester stickers for $37,000. Supplies are low so don't expect to haggle much on price, even in today's climate. Standard Mariners and competition like CR-V, Vue, RAV4, Outlander, Tucson and Sportage are much less expensive. I'd try to figure out the financial break even point but really, who knows how stable gas prices will be over the coming years. Talk it over with both your conscience and checkbook to see if it's worth the extra money for you. But tell Al Gore to stay off your shoulder.