What is Mercury? Some might answer that it's the planet closest to the sun, a winged god, or the stuff dentists used to put into fillings. But automotively speaking, it's a Ford with something extra.
My test subject, the Mariner, is closely based on the very successful Ford Escape. As the Mountaineer enhanced the Ford Explorer, so the Mariner adds appearance and comfort features to the Escape to give it some distinction. The major small SUVs tend to be a little short of luxury, so Mercury now offers the Mariner to remedy that deficiency.
The Mariner retains the Escape's basic panels, inside and out. On the outside, the nose carries the Mercury family style, with a satin aluminum vertical bar grille-a look that has been worn by various Mercurys over the years. The face is clean and elegant, with a shiny band below the grille with the Mercury name letter spaced generously across it. The Mercury logo sits front and center on the grille.
Clean cladding and standard 16-inch alloy wheels distinguish the side view. The Mariner's taillamps wear metallic grilles over them, just like big brother, and the bumper carries a shiny trim strip.
Inside, a two-tone look and enhanced materials add distinction. From the doors to the dash to the seats to the gauges, this is a nicer looking and better feeling ride than the Escape from which it grew.
You can order up your Mariner in three flavors, which, refreshingly, are not called DL or LX or SE. The first level is called Convenience, with steps up to Luxury, and at the top, Premier. My Silver Clearcoat Metallic tester was a Premier, with a coordinated Pebble/Light Parchment Suede interior.
The Convenience comes with Ford's 2.3-liter Duratec inline four, which produces a reasonable 153 horsepower and 152 lb.-ft. of torque. The Luxury and Premier models get the beefier 200-horsepower Duratec 30, which cranks out 193 lb.-ft. of torque. All models get a standard 4-speed automatic.
My test car earned mileage ratings of 18 City, 23 Highway, which is pretty consistent with the competition. The Convenience, with its inline four, nets you a couple of miles per gallon improvement. Thanks to my tester's electronic message center, I learned that I averaged 17.3 mpg.
The Convenience may be the starting point, but it's no stripper. The car has four-wheel disc brakes with antilock and electronic brake assist for quick, safe stops. Alloy wheels are standard, too, as are fog lamps, power outside mirrors, power windows, and power locks. You get an AM/FM stereo with a single CD slot, air conditioning, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise control built in.
Besides the V6, the midrange Luxury level gains a power driver's seat, a six-disc CD changer, an alarm system, privacy glass, automatic headlamps, and lit vanity mirrors. At the top, the Premier receives shinier alloy wheels, a super sound system with a subwoofer, and heated seats and exterior mirrors.
What no Mariner get is climate control or a leather-wrapped shift knob. Also, the fake wood in my car wasn't very plush looking, the screw covers on the front pillar grab handles were sloppily installed, and the console bin lid made a cheap, plasticky sound when I opened and closed it. So despite the more pleasing appearance, the ambiance of the Mariner is still not very luxurious.
Like the Escape, the Mariner benefits from being built with unibody construction. Although it sits higher on the road than a standard car, it drives like one. With the optional four-wheel-drive system, the car is designed to maintain itself well under poor weather conditions. The Intelligent 4WD System transfers torque from the front to the rear automatically as needed, without the driver having to even think about it. Don't, however, take your Mariner on the Rubicon Trail.
Prices for the Mariner begin at $22,040 for the Convenience, $23,650 for the Luxury, and $25,650 for the Premier. All of these prices include destination charges. Add $1,750 for four-wheel drive. My tester had several worthwhile options, such as the reverse sensing system-a huge safety enhancement ($225), stylish black side step rails ($325), a power moonroof ($895), the Trailer Towing package ($350), and the safety canopy and side airbags ($595). The bottom line was a rather breathtaking $29,655.
The Mariner's mission is to bring a new kind of customer into Mercury showrooms-a younger buyer with an active family life and a few extra dollars to spend on a compact SUV. The Mariner fills the bill and drives very nicely, but at nearly $30,000, the Premier may be a little pricey for its stylish but not especially upscale feel.