The phone system is part of the Sync feature set, and it is the best available. When you pair a phone, the system generates a custom six digit PIN, making it very difficult for anyone to pair a phone to the car without having access to the cabin. This system is polite, asking you if you actually want it to download your phonebook. If you do, it is very easy to find phonebook entries on the screen, but voice command works even better, letting you say the name of the person you want to call. With a few phones, the system even supports texting. It can read an incoming text message to you, and lets you reply with a canned response.
Sync also lets you connect an MP3 player or a USB drive loaded with MP3s, and makes the music browsable by artist, album, and genre. Voice command works exceptionally well here, too, letting you say the name of an artist, album, or genre to play it. We were impressed that the system even recognized made up names like The Phenomenauts when we spoke them. The system works with iPods, Zunes, and any other MP3 player that creates its directories in Microsoft's PlaysForSure format. Other audio sources include a single disc player that can read MP3 CDs, an in-dash hard drive, and Sirius satellite radio, which comes as a natural adjunct to Sirius Travel Link. You can rip music to the hard drive by putting in a standard CD and hitting the record button. With the system's enhanced Gracenote database, it not only tags the music appropriately, but also attaches a thumbnail image of the album cover, if it has one available.
The audio system is a little underwhelming. Mercury calls it an Audiophile system, but we found the sound quality generally muddy. The system puts its few speakers in the doors, which keeps the sound stage low, and a subwoofer in the cargo area. Bass isn't particularly striking and the highs don't stand out. This isn't a system for real music lovers.
We also would have appreciated a back-up camera in this car, as it is an SUV with poor visibility for objects low to the ground and behind it.
Under the hood
As we noted above, Mercury gave the Mariner Hybrid a bigger gas engine for 2009. This 2.5-liter four cylinder engine, with aluminum block and heads, replaces the previous 2.3-liter engine, yet still works on the Atkinson cycle. The new engine produces 153 horsepower at 6,000rpm and 136 pound-feet of torque at 4,500rpm. The car's electric motor, part of the hybrid system, puts out 94 horsepower, enough to get the car going from a stop. After calculating out overlaps, the net horsepower is rated at 177.
The Mariner Hybrid isn't particularly fast, and doesn't feel powerful, but it gets you from point A to point B. We found that it developed moderate acceleration when we attempted passing maneuvers, reasonable for getting on the freeway but a little dicey for getting by slower traffic on a two-lane highway.
As with most full hybrids, the Mariner Hybrid uses a continuously variable transmission, with no fixed gears. While efficient, this type of transmission takes some of the excitement out of driving, as it constantly matches the drive ratio to the engine speed. In our test car, the transmission put all the power to the front wheels, but an all-wheel-drive version of the car is available.
The power steering is electric, another common feature on hybrids, also seen more frequently on regular gas cars. As with the rest of the car, the steering isn't very dynamic, but is tight enough to keep excessive play out of the wheel. At parking lot speeds, the power assist is strong, so the wheel moves easily. The suspension does a good job of absorbing the bumps. We didn't push the Mariner Hybrid hard on winding roads, as it isn't really suitable for sport driving.
We mentioned our observed mileage above, which came substantially under the EPA range. During our time with the car, we drove it on congested city streets and at freeway speeds of around 65 mph, without much attempt to maximize our fuel economy. We did notice that the car's aerodynamics prevented it from coasting easily on the freeways, requiring us to keep feeding it gas to overcome wind resistance. On the plus side, the Mariner Hybrid gets an excellent SULEV rating from the California Air Resources Board, meaning it puts only 1 pound of smog-producing hydrocarbons into the air for 100,000 miles of driving.
The 2009 front-wheel-drive Mercury Mariner Hybrid goes for a base price of $29,750. Our car's only option was the Hybrid Premium Package, which includes the navigation system, Sync, Sirius Travel Link, Sirius satellite radio, and various other touches, for $3,595. With its $725 destination charge, the total came out to $34,070. There are plenty of other small SUVs available for less than $30,000, but no full hybrids, and none, besides the Ford Escape Hybrid, with this quality of cabin tech. But as a more rugged choice with decent cabin tech, we would consider the Mitsubishi Outlander. The upcoming Saturn Vue Two Mode Hybrid might also give the Mariner Hybrid a run for the money.
With the excellent combination of Sirius Travel Link and Sync, we give the Mariner Hybrid a high score for cabin tech, only dinging it for the mediocre audio quality. It earns points under performance tech for its hybrid power train, low emissions, and easy drivability, but we weren't all that impressed with the actual mileage. The interface design adds to the overall design score, as we like its intuitive feel. As for the overall car design, it's practical, but on the bland side.