The last soccer-mom vehicle-priority poll that we took ranked interior space, efficiency and affordability far higher than at-the-limit handling or acceleration. And that's why it doesn't matter that the 2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid won't blow you away with its drag-strip performance or skid-pad numbers. It doesn't handle or stop like a sports car and it's not terribly interesting to drive.
Soccer moms don't care.
Because it is socially responsible. And fuel-efficient. It is as functional as most other five-passenger SUVs. And it's fairly priced — relative to both hybrid and non-hybrid SUVs. From the outside you'd never know it was a hybrid if it didn't say so right across the rear hatch. In the world of small SUVs — especially small hybrid SUVs — it's these qualities that matter most.
Differences that don't matter
Don't think of the Mariner Hybrid as a hybrid and it will readjust your perspective on the breed. First, it's a small SUV — think Mazda CX-7, Saturn Vue or Toyota RAV4. Second, it's a hybrid. Unless you're a serious car dork, the hybrid powertrain won't even really matter to you when you're behind the steering wheel.
The only other differences are small. You won't feel the dedicated shifting of an automatic transmission, because the Mariner Hybrid's continuously variable transmission eliminates those. You might pick up on the occasional switch between modes when the Mariner swaps from electric to gasoline motivation or vice versa, but Mercury has made that segue remarkably transparent.
Front-wheel-drive Mariner Hybrids like our test truck start at $25,765. All-wheel-drive versions begin at $27,515. Options upped the price tag on our test car to $31,000, and they included the Premium Package (which adds a navigation system and other amenities) and the Moon and Tune Package (which adds a moonroof, Sirius Satellite Radio and a 110-volt AC outlet).
New inside and out
Both Ford's Escape, which shares the Mariner's platform, and the Mariner itself feature new styling for 2008, which is to say they share the basic suspension underpinnings as the 2007 model.
Customers told Mercury the changes should focus on styling, the reduction of noise and vibration, and the addition of navigation and MP3 compatibility. Accordingly, there's a new exterior design that raises the Mariner's beltline while tweaking its front and rear fascias, headlights and taillights, liftgate and hood.
Inside there are new seats, which are quite comfortable. The seat's leather looks and feels like quality, as do most of the plastics lining the pillars, doors and dash. Overall, the interior design and materials are a substantial improvement, but Mercury is still chasing its Japanese rivals in this department.
We were impressed with the Mariner's low overall noise level. It often uses its full-electric mode in stop-and-go driving, and it's virtually silent with the exception of a few unobtrusive, yet exclusively hybrid-style clicks and whines. Even at freeway speeds, tire and wind noise are significantly damped, making the Mariner far better than your mother's Mercury.
It's also safer. All Mariners come standard with side-impact airbags that deploy from the seats, plus curtain-type head protection airbags.
Dual knobs for driver and passenger climate controls are found on either side of the dash, and the temperature display is high on the dashboard above the audio and navigation system. Mercury claims this design makes the information easier to read while driving. We don't agree. The driver must look down once to find the knob and then look again to find the display, and this is more distracting than finding everything in one place.
After flipping up the seat bottoms and removing the headrests — a lengthy process relative to its competition — the Mariner's rear seats fold flat to accommodate 66.2 cubic feet of cargo space, some 7.6 cubic feet more than the Mazda CX-7.
Living with the Mariner
We drove the Mariner almost 900 miles both in the city and on the highway and managed 27 mpg on three of our four fill-ups. On the fourth tank, which was all highway miles, the Mariner produced 32 mpg. That's considerably better combined mileage than the Saturn Vue Green Line, so if it's fuel-efficiency you're looking for, the Mariner might be just the ticket.
The Mariner suffers only marginally from the poor control feel that plagues many hybrids. Its brakes, which regenerate electricity, produce an odd control feedback just like so many regenerative braking systems do, but we easily learned to manage them. The electric-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has appropriate effort and feedback for a small SUV.
Cruise comfortably without rushing and the Mariner gets the job done. It has enough power to satisfy those who aren't interested in going quickly. We found ourselves needing to think ahead on the freeway, since the transmission responds slowly to wide throttle openings. Around town, the Mariner is composed, easy to navigate and utilitarian.
What not to do with your Mariner
Like most hybrids, the Mariner stops shining when it comes to instrumented testing. Its tires are designed for durability, not performance, and a lack of suspension damping hurts its handling at high speed. Throw in plenty of body roll and these compromises conspire to turn out a lowly skid-pad performance of 0.67g. Our polling says most soccer moms think a skid pad is a diaper-changing table anyway.
The slalom is equally painful. With performance of 58.8 mph, the Mariner is 2.5 mph slower than the last front-wheel-drive Hyundai Santa Fe we tested and 5.5 mph slower than Mazda's all-wheel-drive CX-7 — the best-handling SUV in the class. Again, it probably doesn't matter how fast your small SUV slaloms if your primary concern is dodging shopping carts at 4 mph.
Acceleration, however, is more important. Even the child-seat-equipped need to accelerate to freeway speeds in reasonable time. The Mariner hit 60 mph from a standstill in 10.8 seconds, which won't break any records. It is, however, 0.7 second quicker than the less expensive Saturn Vue Green Line. But there's no contest when compared to similarly priced small SUVs like our two-wheel-drive, V6-powered long-term Toyota RAV4, which gets to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds flat.
The quarter-mile arrives in 17.8 seconds at 80.6 mph, putting it ahead of the Vue Green Line by 0.2 second but lagging behind the RAV4 by 2.5 seconds.
Braking performance is as expected, given the Mariner's lack of tire grip and 3,714-pound as-tested weight. It stopped from 60 mph in 138 feet, which is better than the Vue Green Line's 144-foot performance but a far cry from the Mazda CX-7's short 123-foot stop from the same speed.
The cost of being green
When it comes to hybrid SUVs, there's a relatively limited pool from which to draw. Mercury has strategically positioned the Mariner between the similarly sized Saturn Vue Green Line and the larger Toyota Highlander Hybrid — in terms of both size and cost.
Its sub-$26,000 base price is competitive, but not rock bottom in the segment. It's considerably more expensive than the Saturn, but it's also a much nicer vehicle in every way. Compared to other gasoline-only SUVs, the Mariner Hybrid asks buyers to pay a premium. Mazda's CX-7 Sport starts at $23,750 and shares many of the Mariner's standard features.
For us, the decision boils down to more than just a question of social responsibility versus extra cost. An SUV needs to drive well, meet our cargo- and people-hauling needs, and be easy to live with. Fuel-efficiency and low emissions are just a bonus. Using that yardstick, the Mariner Hybrid measures up. Funny enough, our poll says the same thing.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Hybrids are getting so stealthy. And I mean their drivability, not their quietude. If I didn't see the little hybrid badge on the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, I wouldn't have noticed this SUV isn't your average gas-guzzler. The transition between electric and gasoline motivation is smooth, with no hint of abruptness, no sag in acceleration.
Where the Mariner Hybrid falls short is its interior. While the driver's seating position is high and the view out the windows is good, the seats themselves are just plain awful. They have no side bolsters and are covered in slippery leather. I nearly slid out of my seat in every turn.
Also the seat heaters only worked once for me. They got nice and toasty, then turned themselves off in exactly 10 minutes. When I switched them on again, the light came on for 10 minutes, but no heat. I tried this several times, but the seats never warmed back up.
The Mariner has a dippy navigation system. When I disobeyed its instructions, it kept telling me to make a legal U-turn. Five times it suggested this. Get over it; I don't want to go that way. It was very slow to recalculate. It also didn't know when I arrived at my location.
Big plus on the Mercury Mariner's hybrid package, big minus on the seats and navi.