Mercury Mariner Hybrid – going green gets better

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We were intrigued during a visit to New York City by the large number of Ford Escape Hybrid taxis plying the streets of Manhattan.

Makes sense when you figure hybrids are at their best in slow stop and go traffic. The gas engine remains at rest much of the time. And a small SUV that will comfortably hold as many passengers and as much luggage as a big Crown Vic while deriving as much as 10 more miles to the gallon is a smart move.

The window sticker markup over a standard gas engine vehicle is easily made up over the hundreds of thousands of miles cabbies drive their cars.

But you don’t have to be a New York cab driver to benefit from a small hybrid sport utility. Hybrid SUVs are family-friendly as well.

The Escape Hybrid is entering its fifth model year and it — and its twin the Mercury Mariner — have been blessed with continual upgrades and improvements.

A restyled exterior and an upgraded interior came for the 2008 model year, and for 2009 the hybrid twins get more power while at the same time yielding slightly better gas mileage.

We spent a pleasant week in a 2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid, intrigued by the increased horsepower — now with a total output of 177 horses compared to 155 for 2008 — especially when merging with heavy freeway traffic.

Of course, testing the limits of the available power is not the way to get the best gas mileage. We admit to a heavy foot. Fast starts are in our DNA. Quick takeoffs at the traffic light, especially on a 55-mph highway, are standard operating procedure. We don’t like to get nipped by the guy next to us even if we are driving the most underpowered sub- compact on the market.

That puts into perspective the 29 miles-to-the-gallon average we derived over 250 miles. When you consider the way we drive, that's surprisingly close to the Mariner’s posted fuel economy of 31 highway/34 city.

If you are in the market for a small crossover SUV, especially if your goal is to save at the pump, then you won’t do better than the Mariner or its siblings, the Ford Escape or Mazda Tribute hybrids.

For the 2008 model year, the Mariner was restyled inside and out, the interior was made quieter and a full-range of safety features were added as standard equipment.

We will get to all that in a minute, but first the big news for 2009 is a new 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. The non-hybrid gas engine model is now outfitted with a 171-horsepower 2.5-liter engine mated to a six-speed automatic. That's a big improvement from the previous 2.3-liter engine developing 153 horsepower mated to a four-speed automatic.

The hybrid gets the same treatment getting a version of the 2.5-liter mated to a continuously variable transmission. Ford says the electric motor and the gas engine together develop 177 useable horsepower.

That takes the hybrid out of the leisurely performance category and elevates it to definitely acceptable.

Let’s not take our eye off the prize — you are considering a hybrid purchase to save dollars at the pump, not to outrun your neighbor's Mustang. But we agree it's hard to live day-to-day without modern freeway performance.

Well, we say the Mariner has had the goods. With 22 less useable horsepower in 2008, it was measured at an acceptable 0-to-60 in 10.1 seconds. Our seat-of-the-pants test using a handheld stopwatch showed us the 2009 Mariner can accomplish the feat in around 9.5 seconds. Case closed.

And here’s the kicker — the 2009 model actually gets one more mile to the gallon in highway driving now rated at 31 mpg.

The Mariner drives as small as you would expect it would; stretching out a compact 175 inches with a 103-inch wheelbase. While the turning circle is a longish 39 feet, the small Mercury is still maneuverable in the mall parking lot.

Rear seating is comfortable for two people who will find very adequate legroom and ample head room. And rear storage measures 29 cubic feet, very generous for a small SUV. With the second row folded, maximum cargo capacity on a flat surface is a decent 62 cubic feet.

The 2009 Mariner for the most part has a pleasing upscale, carryover interior. Stylists had created a more Lincoln-like cockpit in their 2008 updating. Satin-aluminum and chrome accent the center stack and console. Chrome- ringed gauges, redesigned for 2008, are attractive.

We did not have the leather seat option, but we can report the cloth fabric is excellent.

The Mariner offers an impressive array of standard safety equipment including canopy side air curtains, side-impact air bags, ABS, tire pressure monitor system, and Ford’s AdvanceTrac anti-skid system.
Factor in the Mariner's top crash ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Mercury has a strong selling point.

The Mariner has earned a top five stars from NHTSA for both front and rear-seat passengers in side-impact crash tests when equipped with the now-standard curtain airbags and the second highest rating from IIHS in offset frontal impact tests.

If we’ve sold you on the Mariner hybrid, hold your horses. We recommend that you get your calculator out and crunch the following numbers.

The base price of a front-wheel drive hybrid is about $30,000. The base price of a standard FWD 4-cylinder Mariner is about $23,000. So we are looking at a $7,000 difference. The 4-cylinder's gas mileage is rated at 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.

The government has done the math for us. Based on 15,000 miles a year at $3.00 a gallon the standard 4-cylinder will use $1,957 in fuel, the hybrid fuel cost is $1,408. That’s a savings of $549 a year. At that rate, it would take nearly 13 years to recover the purchase price. At $2.00 per gallon it takes longer; at $4.00 a gallon you make it up quicker. Our guess is that over the long haul prices will be going up. In either case you shouldn’t chose a hybrid just for the sake of saving fuel. There are better and more altruistic reasons for making the decision of buying a hybrid.

Both models come similarly equipped. And there's an income tax credit for the Mariner that needs to be figured into the equation. Check the IRS Web site for up-to-date information. It will help off-set some of the pain.

Our test car came with the $1,995 navigation option, which also included a very good 320-watt sound system and satellite radio. That brought the bottom line to $32,470.

The 2009 Mariner is a good small SUV choice whether in standard 4- cylinder gas engine guise or as a hybrid. If you want to drive green, we recommend the hybrid. You will pay more at the outset, but you will enjoy fewer visits to the gas pumps. And your neighbors will think more highly of you.


Base price: $30,475; as driven, $32,470
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, electric motor
Horsepower: combined 177
Torque: 136 foot-pounds @ 4,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.1 inches
Length: 175.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,669 pounds
Turning circle: 39.3 feet
Luggage capacity: 27.9 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 66 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 34 mpg city; 31 mpg highway
0-60: 9.5 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Ford Escape Hybrid, Saturn Vue Hybrid, Mazda Tribute Hybrid

The Good

• Excellent performance for a hybrid vehicle
• Numerous safety features come as standard equipment
• Outstanding gas mileage for a small SUV

The Bad

• Despite upgrade, exterior styling has become dated

The Ugly

• Sells for a whopping seven grand more than comparable 4-cylinder version