During a business trip to Canada, my manager and I watched a Swedish colleague use his cell phone to hold a three-way conference call with Tel Aviv and Hong Kong. The boss was infuriated; his US cell couldn’t even reach Toronto from Toronto. He called Sprint on a land line. "This is unacceptable,” he screamed. “It’s un-American to sell technology that’s seven years behind the Europeans!" The exact same thing’s been said about Detroit’s inability to counter fuel-sipping low-emission hybrids. Enter, finally, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid. Ah, but is the gas/electric Merc ready for prime time or is it just a Johnny-come-lately phoning it in?
Like its platform partners, the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute, the Mariner is a dapper looking cute-ute. While I've never been a fan of the brand’s twenty-toothed family grill, the vertical blingery suits the Mariner’s massive front bumper like shoulder pads on a three-button suit. The SUV’s tight and tidy side-sculpting is equally well-wrought; the concave effect suggests a healthy, trim vehicle with a bit of sporting pretension. Our tester’s Charcoal Beige Clearcoat metallic paint kept the chrome jewelry from visual overload, while the 16" five-spoke aluminum wheels that (nearly) fill the arches show brand-faithful restraint. If ever a badge-engineered vehicle gained a little something in translation, the Mariner is it.
Inside the Mariner’s cabin, it’s an ersatz world after all. The soft-roader’s combination of fake leather, fake wood and fake aluminum is strangely effective, in a 50’s Las Vegas hotel room kinda way. Although it’s not a bad place to spend some time saving the planet, there are plenty of cavils: the HVAC knobs (lifted from the Focus) couldn’t go any further down market if they cruised Union Square in a miniskirt, the leather-wrapped steering wheel is Olsen Twin thin, and the cow-clad seats are less supportive than a deadbeat dad. Despite six-way power seats, a perfect seating position proved eternally elusive. And I dare you to find the seat-heater button.
The Mariner’s Nav system/head unit is the SUV’s greatest ergonomic failure. The credit card-sized screen can’t fit street names — just tiny white lines. Why didn’t Ford install the Freestyle’s big, beautiful LCD touchscreen? Half the fun (satisfaction?) of driving a hybrid comes from watching a real-time mpg readout while modulating the throttle and brakes to conserve as much fuel as possible. The Mariner's micro-screen doesn’t let you check your power source (Engine? Batteries? Hybrid-drive?) and mileage at the same time. You have to flip back and forth between the two screens– which is bad form for a company publicly committed to automotive safety.
Speaking of not dying, it’s best to pay careful attention to the Mariner’s brakes. Thanks to the regenerative braking gear, the anchor pedal weighs a ton. There is simply no way to smoothly roll on the stopping power; you have to stomp. The batteries and second engine benefiting from the recharge push the Mariner’s GVW up to nearly two tons. The extra weight degrades the tall, short wheel-base truck's ride and handling. At 80mph, driving the Mariners feels as if you’re riding a dented washboard.
There are three types of propulsion. Flutter the go-pedal and the torquey 94hp electric mill does the clean deed (although I could only get the Mariner into full-electric mode when tooling around parking lots). Mash the gas and the Hybrid switches to its 2.3L I-4 Atkins-style dead dino diet. Ninety-seven percent of the time you’re using both mills. After a few hundred miles of mixed driving the bottom line was… 25.8mpg. That’s nearly the same as the 21/24 EPA estimates for the four wheel-drive 2.3-liter Mariner. What's the point? Why spend $10k more to haul around an extra 400 lbs. netting you roughly 10% better fuel economy?
It gets worse. In stop and go traffic, the Mariner’s powerplant hibernates. With the engine off, calling the already weak air conditioning anemic is an insult to the iron-deficient. Mercury’s recommendation: when it’s “overly hot” switch the controls to MAX AC, which keeps the engine from shutting off. During summertime daylight hours, you get to choose between saving the planet and not sweating to death. The reverse is also true. The instructions issue the same warning when it’s “overly cold;” the Mariner’s electric motor is little more than a space heater. If you live in a flat, temperate climate and enjoy slow speed cruising, Mercury has a very handsome hybrid to sell you.
Taken as a whole, the Mariner Hybrid can’t compete with Toyota’s more complete hybrid Highlander. But at least Mercury has started the hybrid conversation with its mid-market buyers. Bold moves aren’t usually successful first time; they require follow through and persistence. As long as Mercury keeps hitting redial, they’ll eventually make the connection.
[Mercury provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance, taxes and a tank of gas.]