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Sunday, August 12, 2007

(Photo)
The 2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid is cheaper than the previous year's model.
(Associated Press)
Mercury's fuel-sipping gasoline-electric hybrid, the Mariner sport utility vehicle, doesn't get the publicity that other hybrids do.

But it should, especially now that the compact, 2008 model is refreshed inside and out, has more safety features and is offered in a new, lower-priced version that starts nearly $2,000 less than the 2007 Mariner Hybrid.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the new model -- a 2008 Mariner Hybrid with front-wheel drive -- is $26,620. This compares with the $28,615 starting price for a 2007 Mariner Hybrid that was offered only with four-wheel drive.

Best of all, the new, two-wheel drive Mariner Hybrid joins its Ford Motor Co. sibling -- the 2008 Ford Escape -- in garnering top SUV fuel mileage ratings from the federal government.

With front-wheel drive, the 2008 Mariner Hybrid is rated at 34 miles per gallon in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway.

This is a better fuel economy rating than many small cars, including a 2008 Nissan Sentra with gasoline-powered four cylinder. And it means that a careful Mariner Hybrid driver can travel close to 500 miles on a single, 15-gallon tank of gas.

The reason: The five-passenger Mariner Hybrid is propelled by a 133-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and supplements its power with assist from an on-board, 70-kilowatt electric motor that can deliver instant torque and boost total horsepower to 155.

Toyota's hybrid SUVs, including the Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX400h, have V-6s mated to electric motors and thus have lower fuel economy ratings than the Mariner Hybrid.

The Highlander and Lexus SUVs also have considerably higher starting prices.

But be aware that Mercury's only hybrid vehicle still is priced a bit above the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid on which it's based. The starting retail price for a 2008 Escape Hybrid with two-wheel drive is $25,930.

The Mariner Hybrid also is some $5,000 more than a base, 2008 Mariner with front-wheel drive and a 153-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.

The Mariner Hybrid dates back to calendar 2005 when it debuted as a 2006 model. But consumer awareness and sales were low.

The new model promises to do better, though buyers won't find anything -- not even the word "hybrid" -- anywhere on the 2008 Mariner Hybrid sheet metal. Instead, a subtle green leaf entwined with the image of a road is part of the Mariner badge that's on every rear liftgate and front door.

Otherwise, the Mariner Hybrid looks like other 2008 Mariners, with new, larger-than-ever, silver-colored grille, big Mercury logos and taillights that look almost customized because of their white and chrome design.

Inside, about the only thing that alerts a driver that this is a hybrid is the charge/assist gauge in the instrument panel that can indicate when the onboard battery pack is being engaged.

The Mariner Hybrid also has a continuously variable transmission that a driver operates like an automatic.

Like many other gas-electric hybrids, the Mariner starts a bit strangely. In the tester, for example, I heard a click from behind the back seats, where the nickel metal-hydride battery was.

But once I started driving, the Mariner Hybrid with two-wheel drive felt -- and sounded -- more like a regular vehicle.

There was some wind noise at highway speeds and some body roll in curves and turns. I also heard a good amount of suspension noise from the area of the 16-inch wheels, where unsprung weight -- basically, unmanaged mass at the wheels -- was a regular, intruding sensation for driver and passengers.

On the other hand, I appreciated that I didn't experience any hesitation or stutter when the Mariner Hybrid's electric power would add in with the gas engine power, such as when I was accelerating.

This kind of seamless mixing and matching of power has been problematic in some, earlier hybrids.

I just wished that I didn't hear a high-pitch whine inside the Mariner Hybrid now and then. It was annoying when it wasn't covered up by the radio, and it seemed to have something to do with the operation of the electric motor.


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