Although almost identical to the Ford Escape Hybrid by most measures, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid somehow rates hardly a fraction of the attention its sibling enjoys. This neglect may not seem startling, but compared to the acclaim lavished upon both the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX400h gas-electric SUVs, the Mariner’s gotten something of a bum deal. What’s more, the Mercury and the Ford together rate appreciably less acclaim than they probably merit, as America’s first mass-market, domestic, full hybrids.
Snubbing the Escape and Mariner twins–while lavishing praise and attention on the Prius, Insight, and cars of that ilk–likely stems from the common perception that American car makers are behind the times, and the further expectation that such innovations are pretty much beyond the home team. Unfortunately, that misapprehension is not entirely undeserved. Understandable given the recent financial turmoil they’ve been battling, the remaining “Big Two” American automakers have long lagged behind their more nimble–and profitable–overseas rivals in the race to develop and market new powertrain technologies for sustainable mobility. In the public mind, Honda and Toyota are nearly synonymous with the gasoline-electric hybrid cars; and while Ford and GM concentrated dwindling resources on SUVs, they forfeited hundreds of thousands of sales to efficiency-minded consumers. DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen now have years of clean-diesel technology under their collective belts. Even in the basic subcompact car segment, where low emissions and fuel frugality are achieved through the simple virtues of light weight and small engines, the domestic offerings have consistently been a decade or so behind the competition. In terms of public sentiment, such sluggishness has sentenced the Detroit giants to ëalso-raní status in this subject.
Ford has offered an Escape Hybrid since the 2005 model year, however, and the Mercury Mariner Hybrid came out a year later. Admittedly, Toyota started selling the Prius seven years before, and Honda’s Insight predates even that icon. That Dearborn now has its own offering, though, is still newsworthy.
Commensurate with Mercury’s status as a middle-echelon, step-up-from-Ford brand, the Mariner is essentially a better-equipped Escape in ritzier duds. Both measure 174 inches long and 70î in height and width. Motivation comes courtesy of a 2.3-liter four-cylinder internal-combustion engine mated to a 400-volt electric motor. Mariner and Escape share a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) and four-wheel-drive as well.
While their shape is essentially similar, the Mariner is visually differentiated by additional chrome, a waterfall grille, and upgraded wheels and trim. Holistically, the stylistic tweaks successfully set the Mercury apart–where the Escape appears plebian and average, the Mariner evinces a decidedly richer look.
The Mariner’s classification as a “full” hybrid–as opposed to the mild or parallel kind–distinguishes it from the gas-electric powertrains that rely upon their electric motor only for motive assistance, such as those that Honda and Chevrolet use. Thus, the Ford system can function on electric power only up to 25 mph, given sufficient battery charge and a gentle throttle input. Indeed, taking advantage of this capability–inching ahead in stop-and-go traffic for miles without using a drop of gas–is astoundingly entertaining.
In a week’s worth of mixed driving, with our usual devil-may-care (we’re-not-paying-for-it) attitude toward fuel economy, we averaged 26 mpg. Note that although this real-world figure falls short of the EPA ratings of 33/29 mpg city/highway, we’re still impressed, for two reasons. Firstly, the disparity between observed and claimed mileage is ubiquitous, thanks to a wildly optimistic EPA testing procedure. Actually, our tests of other hybrids have returned much more dissimilar numbers (for instance, we’ve rated the Prius in the high 30s). Secondly, we’re acclimated to underwhelming economy in our test cars–we drive ‘em hard so you don’t have to!
Sadly, driving the Mariner Hybrid hard was itself hard work. This small SUV is among the segment’s top performers in standard form, but the added weight of the hybrid components (400-plus pounds) exacts a real performance penalty. Moreover, the CVT–tuned for efficiency, not enthusiasm–refuses to rev, shifts ratios slowly, and shies away from sudden bursts of speed.
Effectively, the Mariner Hybrid ekes out 155 horsepower from its gas-electric engine(s). That figure is roughly equivalent to the output of the base-model Escape/Mariner–strangely also powered by the 2.3-liter. The optional V6, at 200hp, makes for a quicker whip. We averaged zero-to-sixty times of a hair under 10 seconds in the Hybrid; by all accounts, that ranks about a second behind the regular 2.3-liter and 2 seconds behind the V6.
Realistically, though, the Mariner/Escape Hybrids aren’t pretending to emphasize the “sport” part of the SUV segment. In everyday driving, our Mariner was absolutely competent. There was plenty of power for regular commuting; we never missed a merge opportunity, and often still managed to be the first away from the stoplight. Handling, too, is adequate and the Mariner went where we asked it to without complaint.
Ride comfort was where the Mariner’s soft-ish suspension tuning was appreciated. Traversing the most treacherous potholes, or riding on the roughest of roads, and despite the most deceptive of depressions, it retained its composure with aplomb. Chalk it up to the joys of “road-hugging weight”.
Immediately apparent upon entering the Mariner is how much importance was given to the interior appointments as well. Our loaded tester was downright opulent, relative to the small-SUV segment. Heated leather seating, automatic headlights, keyless entry, and even a reverse-sensing system were among the included conveniences–although we were miffed by the missing moonroof.
The two-toned interior layout, too, proved pleasant. Chrome and aluminum accents are attractive, and we even liked the faux wood. Over 99 cubic feet of passenger room is available, giving the Mariner an airy, open ambiance. Cargo space increases from 29í to 66í when the 60/40 rear bench is folded.
An audiophile-quality stereo system with 6-disc changer and navigation unit were also fitted to our Mariner, as part of a $3000 option package. We appreciated the fuel-economy and power-graph screen displaying a bar graph of our recent consumption; and another that diagrams energy flow (real-time demands on the engine, electric motor, and battery). Nevertheless, in our opinion it’s an excessive expenditure. The display screen itself is smaller than most by several orders of magnitude–and it lacks touch-screen capability. We found this system to be rather obtuse, to boot–we had to enter every destination at least twice for one reason or another.
Stickered at $33,750, the 2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid is encroaching on the entry-level luxury segment. Factor in the feature content, and maybe skip the audio/nav package, and it makes more sense. Remember, too, that hybrid cars are eligible for various government subsidies, which can total from $2-6,000 in combined federal and state savings–not to mention factory incentives, which are currently running around $2,000. Then consider the hybrid powertrain, which generally runs a premium of $3-5,000 (about $2,500 for the Ford/Mercury).
Many consumers don’t understand that hybrids are generally not money-saving propositions. The initial surcharge, relative to an equivalent gas-powered vehicle, typically exceeds projected fuel savings for 7 to 10 years or more. True, a substantial hike in gasoline prices will alter those calculations, but for now the benefits of most hybrids are more psychological than fiscal. However, given the Ford factory rebates and applicable tax incentives, as well as the mileage increase, the case could be made that the Mercury Mariner and Ford Escape Hybrids are financially sound investments, unlike the Prius and others. That alone is worthy of acclaim.