While the new DVD-based navigation system is a big improvement, it uses an ugly map with low resolution. We saw this same navigation/stereo component in the Ford Expedition, although there is no voice-command function in the Mariner Hybrid. Besides its ugly map display, the navigation system is very functional. It has touch-screen operation, accurate route guidance, and many methods for entering a destination. We particularly like the ability to find the nearest freeway entrance or exit. You can also choose a destination from the map, but a couple of too-large onscreen buttons make this difficult. During route guidance, the navigation system reads out the names of streets, a nice high-end feature.
When you start up the car, it also lets you know it has an Audiophile sound system. That description is a bit of a stretch, as the car only gets six speakers and a subwoofer, when you get the Premium package. But it is a reasonably good-sounding system and will do for most people. Just don't expect deep bass or a particularly rich sound.
The audio system is controlled through the LCD, with easy-to-use tabs for selecting sources. And this car features the whole range, including a six-disc MP3 capable changer, an auxiliary input neatly mounted at the bottom of the stack, and satellite radio. One gripe about the MP3 CD display--it uses large buttons that take up a lot of screen real estate, limiting the amount of track information that is shown. Also, we would have liked buttons on the steering wheel for controlling the audio system.
A nice feature continued from previous Mariner Hybrids is the AC outlet located at the bottom of the stack, letting you plug in a laptop, a phone charger, or anything else. Bluetooth cell phone integration isn't available on the Mariner Hybrid, a feature we think appropriate for this class of car.
Under the hood
The hybrid system in the Mariner uses a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, with a 133 horsepower output, mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The gas engine is augmented by a 70 kilowatt electric motor. A control module monitors the battery level, driver throttle input, and other car data to determine whether to run the car off the electric motor, or both the motor and the engine. It also decides when to use the engine to charge up the battery.
Although the CVT doesn't lend itself to an exhilarating driving experience, the combination of the engine and motor provide enough power to get the car moving, with reasonable acceleration. When we first got behind the wheel, we found ourselves changing our driving demeanor radically, trying to optimize use of the hybrid system. We tended to accelerate lightly and frequently check the power-flow diagram to see the battery charge. There is also a gauge on the instrument cluster that shows when the battery is being charged and when the motor is assisting the engine. The tachometer needle also points to a wide, green band when the engine is off, at a stop or at low speeds. The extra power is noticeable when the engine turns off, but the transition is not uncomfortable.
Once we got over the novelty of hybrid driving, we resorted to our usual heavy foot for freeway entrances and beating the traffic off of a light. In this more normal style of driving, we were probably getting worse gas mileage, but the car was completely up to it. The car let us drive exactly how we wanted to. The EPA hasn't published mileage figures for the Mariner Hybrid yet, but we got 24.7mpg in driving that was biased toward the freeway. To get a better handle on city mileage, we snapped a picture of the car's mileage graph, which records the last 15 minutes of driving. Averaging out those numbers, we estimate about 45mpg for city driving in heavy traffic.
The Mariner Hybrid isn't really meant for sport driving--it has some understeer and feels top heavy on the corners. We had a front-wheel-drive version, but all-wheel drive is available. We did end up taking the car over a particularly rough and windy mountain road, Las Tunitas, which winds from Highway 1, on the coast, to I-280. We were able to push the Mariner Hybrid pretty hard over this poorly paved road without feeling unsafe, so we would say the car handles moderately well.
We didn't have final pricing for our 2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid, but expect to pay just less than $30,000 for one with a navigation and premium audio system. There are few choices for small hybrid SUVs, and we prefer the Mariner Hybrid over the Saturn Vue Green Line. Although the Vue is considerably cheaper, the Mariner's hybrid system is better. It offers greater boost from the motor and can drive the car under electric power. The navigation system and stereo, although not perfect, are also better than what we had in the Vue Green Line.
And the Mariner Hybrid also does reasonably well when compared to other small SUVs, such as the CR-V, the Outlander, and the Grand Vitara. The Outlander and CR-V have better cabin gadgets, but won't match the Mariner Hybrid for fuel economy.