The Good: Sync provides excellent voice command, along with MP3 player and cell phone integration in the 2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid. Sirius Travel Link provides useful information about traffic and gas prices in the car. The hybrid system gives the car very low emissions. The Bad: In our testing, fuel economy came in well under the EPA numbers. The audio system is only adequate. The Bottom Line: Ford's cabin tech sets the 2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid far ahead of the competition, with extremely convenient features, and the hybrid system allows for gas-free driving at low speeds in this small and practical SUV. Photo gallery:2009 Mercury Mariner HybridDespite an update between the 2007 and the 2008 models, Ford upgrades the 2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid, giving it a big improvement over the 2008 Mariner Hybrid. Part of this update has to do with the advent of Sync and Sirius Travel Link, two technologies Ford is using to differentiate itself. But the 2009 Mariner Hybrid gets more than new cabin tech; the engine gets a little bigger, bringing in more horsepower, all without losing fuel economy. The Mercury Mariner Hybrid, along with its Ford Escape Hybrid stablemate, are the only small full hybrid SUVs currently available. They each have seating for five and a large cargo space built on unibody construction. As hybrids, they can each be driven under electric power for short distances and at low speeds. More importantly, the engine turns off when you are at a stop light or stuck in traffic, meaning you're not wasting gas. Because of this behavior, full hybrids often get better mileage in the city than on the highway. Our front-wheel-drive Mariner Hybrid is rated by the EPA at 34 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, although our observed mileage was only 27 mpg. Test the tech: Traffic avoidance Although the hybrid system helps save gas in traffic, we would rather not be crawling along at 5 mph, staring at the bumper ahead of us, so we used the Mariner Hybrid's navigation system to see how effectively we could avoid traffic snarls. This hard-drive-based navigation system uses a touch screen and high-resolution maps. Sirius Travel Link provides traffic reporting, which gets overlaid on the navigation maps, showing traffic flow on highways and freeways, along with specific incidents such as accidents and road construction. The Mariner Hybrid's navigation system warns us about trouble on our route, giving us an easy option to detour it.We tested the system during a stormy rush hour, where Webcams around the San Francisco Bay Area showed cars crawling and stopped along various freeways. From our offices, we first entered a destination south, down the Peninsula. The system dutifully calculated a route and showed the first turn as a bright graphic. A second later a tone played and the LCD showed a traffic alert, warning about flooding on the freeway. We pushed the button labeled Avoid, and the system calculated a new route that would keep us on surface streets a little longer, and enter the freeway past the marked flooding area. So far, so good. Knowing that traffic was very bad over in the East Bay, we set a destination near the Oakland airport and watched as the navigation system came up with its initial route, then brought up its warning about a traffic incident along the way. But this time the incident was road construction on the Bay Bridge, advising that the shoulder was closed. We pushed the Avoid button, and the system told us there were no reasonable detours, meaning that the system considered all the possible detours too far out of the way. We weren't afraid of a little road construction, but knew that there was traffic farther along our route we wanted to avoid. The navigation system shows us the detour route, presenting the opportunity to stick with the original route.At this point, we pushed the Travel Link button on the LCD's bezel, and chose the traffic information screen. It showed a list of incidents along our route, letting us pick which one we wanted to avoid. Finding another flooding incident farther along, we chose to avoid it, and watched the system give us a good detour route. Although these tests were all stationary, we experienced the dynamic nature of the system while driving. We were about 50 miles south of San Francisco, and had set our office as the destination. As we drove along the freeway, the system suddenly popped up a warning about an incident along our route. We pushed the Avoid button, following our new traffic-free route back home. In the cabin Although Mercury is supposed to be a mid-luxury brand, between Ford and Lincoln, the cabin of the 2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid isn't dramatically nicer than that in the Ford Escape. Leather is standard, and there are small chrome accents. Our car also came with a leather-wrapped steering wheel. But the most impressive part of the cabin, the tech, is the same between both brands. The touch-screen LCD lets you control the hard-drive-based navigation, Bluetooth phone, and the stereo. But even better, Sync lets you control those systems through voice, and provides full MP3 player integration. Maps can be viewed in 3D as well as top-down. Route guidance is shown in the turn list, and can be customized.The Mariner Hybrid's optional navigation system is excellent, with rich maps that can be viewed top-down or in 3D. Because it is hard-drive-based, maps refresh quickly, making it easy to move the map around and select destinations by touching a location. There is also a fairly full points-of-interest database, along with other means of destination entry, such as address and freeway entrance. For address entry, the navigation system has an onscreen keyboard that can be switched between alphabetical order and the standard QWERTY format. Voice command works very well with this system, letting you say the names of cities and streets, identifying your commands with a good degree of accuracy. Even better, the LCD shows what voice commands are available at any given time, so you don't have to try and figure out how to get into navigation mode. Under route guidance, the system shows big graphics to indicate upcoming turns and says the names of streets. Sirius Travel Link is tied closely to the system. Along with the traffic feature we tested, it also gives weather information, gas prices, movie times, and sports scores. The gas price feature, one of the best data feeds in the system, shows gas prices for all nearby gas stations. You can touch a gas station on its list, and the system will show it on a map, letting you immediately set it as a destination. Travel Link can show a standard forecast, or this weather map.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 power flow animation shows the car working under electric drive.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. In sum 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.