Upscale compact SUV fun in the Mercury Mariner
Ford’s rugged, sporty and sensibly-sized compact Escape SUV has a new cousin: the equally rugged, sporty and slightly repackaged Mercury Mariner. Sharing the same great overall handling and comfortable room for up to five as the Escape, the Mariner is a fun runabout which offers loads of winter-worthy practicality. We might not suggest it as a first choice for large families or those hoping to dedicate it to extreme off-road adventures; as a resilient general-use sport-utility with easy maneuverability, the Mariner offers a smooth overall ride and loads of friendly features.
I spent a week in the Mariner with an admittedly unfair perspective than most other testers – my wife already owns a 2001 Escape and has been happy with the automobile’s size, speed and looks since she purchased it last year. In-town mileage has always been a sticking point (like the Mariner, it only generates about 18 mpg during urban driving; things jump up to 23 or more on the highway), but we’ve been pleased with the Escape’s performance and versatility.Mercury bumps things up a notch on its rendition of the vehicle, with interior and exterior finishing details a shade more classy and brassy than the Escape. Given the choice between the two cousins, buyers will have to decide if they need the Mariner’s rear parking warning system and its simulated wood grain cabin highlights: like one of those old Taurus/ Sable, Camaro/ Firebird decisions, it’s up to you to pick the bird of a different feather.
If the Mariner is your first introduction to the Escape platform, you’ll be pleased by the power of the 200 horsepower, 3.0 liter V6 Duratec engine, not to mention the sturdiness and adaptability of the vehicle’s full-time all-wheel-drive system and four-wheel independent suspension. You get smooth, easy starts and good acceleration, with quiet cruising even at freeway speeds. The only discernible downside I experienced, based on our Escape background, was the Mariner’s inability to consistently hold a gear during the long climb up Vail Pass and the Eisenhower Tunnel.In order to sustain speeds of about 65 mph while traveling the steeps, the Mariner dropped from fourth into second gear and revved up to about 5,000 rpm; it’s a similar situation to the Escape. Granted, power is still there – things just get a bit buzzy when you need a big uphill passing boost.
Featuring a compact 103-inch wheelbase, the Mariner sports four doors, a roomy back seat with space for three and loads of storage (33 cubic feet) in the rear. Functional running boards run the length of the passenger compartment and require a bit of an awkward stretch for taller drivers upon exiting; unlike much larger SUVs, the Mariner is still relatively close to the ground and is easy for everyone to climb into.The Mariner’s metallic paint job also makes it a bit different than base model Escapes. The entire vehicle, including the plastic lower quarter fascia and cladding, receives the same bright color; up front, the vehicle features boxy body-colored bumper panels and chrome-colored inserts that make things look a bit like the nose on a new Nissan Pathfinder or Armada. Bright headlights are complemented by large, square foglamps and side repeater lamps near the side-view mirrors. In the back, there’s also a hard plastic shelf on top of the bumper for kneeling while you reach for goods; a chromed exhaust port and chrome/plastic faux brushguards on the tail lights also add a bit of pizzazz.
Sixteen-inch, arrowhead pointed aluminum wheels and smooth Continental P235/70 R16 tires provided a comfortable ride and good all-season traction.Inside, things are simple but classy, with carpeted floors, leather-styled plastic moldings on the walls and a leather and cloth combination on the seats. Seating is solid yet comfortable with power controls on the driver’s seat; seating position is compact and very close to the wheel and may be a little cramped for taller drivers.
Parked behind a short, angular dash, the Mariner features easy-to-read white-on-grey, metal-trimmed gauges and a slightly infuriating digital information system (click a button mid-dash and you’ll scroll between system warnings, vehicle range, an instant fuel economy graph and numeric output which, throughout a 400-mile trip, never displayed more than 18.2 mpg, even though I suspect the Mariner was actually getting better mileage). The aforementioned simulated wood trim surrounds an instrument panel with the exceptionally powerful 300 watt Mach six-CD stereo controls and an easy-to-use, three-knob heat and A/C system; below it you’ll find the console-mounted shift stick and an overdrive button.Overall, a nice reincarnation of one of Ford’s more popular compact vehicles and definitely an interesting variation on the Escape theme.
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