2005 Mariner tries opening new doors for Mercury

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Mercury officials agree it’s difficult to lure customers into a showroom without fresh products.

“We have lost a lot of customers for lack of product,” said Darryl Hazel, president of Lincoln Mercury, in a recent interview.

His statement is pointed up by Mercury sales figures, which have been cut in half over the past five years and are down again in 2004 as compared to 2003. Mercury was hard pressed to match the 202,000 units sold in 2003. For 2004 total sales reached only 193,534. But the bright spot was Mercury trucks. Bolstered by the Monterey Minivan and the introduction of the Mariner, Mercury’s trucks showed a year over year growth of 31.96-percent.

Unfortunately there are other problems with Mercury.

When Mercury does make a sale, it is usually to an older customer. The average age of Mercury buyers is 61. Ideally, Mercury needs to cut about 10 to 15 years off that statistic, but lowering the age of its customer has proven difficult over the past few years with just four basic models, the big soft-sprung Mercury Grand Marquis, the aging mid-sized Sable now replaced by the Montego, the Villager now replaced thankfully by the Monterey minivan and the Mountaineer sport utility.

Also, Mercury has the reputation in some circles of merely selling upscale versions of Ford products.

There is a chance that some of these problems could be overcome with a batch of new vehicles that, according to Mercury, are more than just rebadged Fords.

Two examples of this new breed of Mercury arrived at dealers during the fourth quarter of 2004. Both new models, the compact Mariner sport utility vehicle and the Montego sedan, are aimed at younger buyers. The Mariner is based on the best-selling Ford Escape, and the Montego is the Mercury version of the all-new nearly full-sized Ford Five Hundred.

These new vehicles have a lot of features unique to Mercury and should give the beleaguered brand a boost over the next 12 months.

Next year Mercury gets the Milan, a new compact sedan. A new crossover SUV/sport wagon is also a possibility in 2006 or 2007. Both are based on similar Ford Division products, but the expectation is for a unique Mercury experience, not just a thinly disguised Ford.

The Mariner, our test vehicle, gives Mercury two sport utilities and a real chance to reach a younger market.

We spent a week in the 2005 Mariner and we think Mercury is on the right track. We’ve always liked the Escape, especially in V-6 mode, and the Mariner is blessed with the same driving and handling attributes. What separates the Mariner from the Escape is styling, both inside and out.

The Escape is a handsome small utility vehicle, so the Mariner stylists had some good-looking sheetmetal to work with.

What stands out is Mercury’s now familiar waterfall-style grille and large headlight enclosures. It gives the Mariner a rugged appearance. The machined alloy wheels, standard on the top Premier trim level, and color-keyed body side cladding convey an upscale appearance from the side view making it quite distinctive from the Ford.

But Mercury designers did their best work on the interior. Metallic trim on the doors and center console neatly dress up the interior. Splashes of wood grain add elegance to the trim package. Leather seating with suede inserts really set a nice tone in our test vehicle, a Premier trim level edition and chrome door handles and a satin aluminum shift knob add to the upscale feel. This too is very different from the utilitarian feel of the Escape.

Another change both for the Escape and now for the Mariner too comes with the shifter on the floor, not on the dashboard as in previous years, and this is especially appropriate for an up-level SUV like the Mercury.

The guts of the beast are the same as the Escape, and that’s not a bad thing. A vastly improved 2.3-liter inline 4 developing 153 horsepower and a 3.0-liter V-6 that develops 200 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque are the two engine offerings.
But the engine that dresses up the Mariner in upscale clothes is certainly the V-6 with its 3,500 pounds of towing capability, an excellent rating for a vehicle this size. While we appreciate that and that the Duratec V-6 has performed well in the Escape and has proven to be a solid engine since the small SUV hit the market in 2001, it could use a few more horses in the Mercury, if for nothing else to set it apart from the Escape.

We found the Mariner had a satisfying urgency off the line. This urgency runs out quickly by the time your planted foot eases off the accelerator at about 70 miles per hour. But the Mariner is still one of the quickest small SUVs on the market capable of 0 to 60 in less than 9-seconds.

The Mariner may be sabotaged somewhat by widely spaced transmission ratios on the 4-speed automatic, and the rather high 4,850 rpm level needed for peak torque.
Switchgear is well marked and easy to use with the exception of the stereo system, which takes a few trips around the block to gain proper familiarization. We wish they had not done away with the tuning knob, but the company isn’t the only one that has gone to switches for station changing.

Our upgraded Mach audio system provided good sound, perhaps a little heavy on the bass for our taste even with it set with an even split. 

The seats are a bit firm, but nonetheless offered good support during our test period. Rear legroom is good and the rear seats can be folded flat creating a 66.3 cubic-foot load floor.

One thing we wish Mercury had done was to install more sound deadening insulation in the Mariner. We are sure the engineers worked on toning down the interior decibels, but the noise level, particularly from the tires, is a little greater than we would like to hear in a vehicle with Mercury written on the side.

Missing from the top trim level are such amenities you would expect to find in an upscale Mercury such as outside temperature readout, steering wheel controls, lighted cruise controls and automatic climate control.

But the Mariner has a lot of good stuff. The base Convenience trim level comes with such standard equipment as 16-inch alloy wheels, power windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control and CD player for $21,995 in 2-wheel drive and with the 4-cylinder engine.

Move up to the Luxury package for $23,495 and the V-6, 6-disc CD changer and alarm system are added.

The Premier package starting at $25,245 adds machine alloy wheels, heated outside mirrors, the Mach audio system, and heated leather/suede seats. The all-wheel drive package raises the base price to $26,995. All prices include destination charges.

If you do add all-wheel drive and you will get a system that automatically shifts torque from front to rear as the situation dictates.

All Mariners get antilock brakes. And an optional side canopy safety system with full-length head curtain airbags can be added to all trim levels.

Our test vehicle came with two options, a reverse sensing system and the safety canopy system bringing the bottom line to $26,095.

By the way, the Escape has earned a perfect five-star rating for the driver and a four-star rating for the front-seat passenger in government frontal impact crash tests, and five stars in side-impact crashes. We see no reason why the Mariner would not receive the same stellar ratings.

The Mariner offers an attractive luxury look, a car-like ride, decent acceleration, exemplary handling, the safety of all-wheel drive, and a lot of cargo space in a small package at an appealing price.