11/17/04 — Mariner gives Mercury shot in arm

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Mariner gives Mercury shot in arm

Mercury Mariner (2005)

Mercury officials agree, it’s difficult to lure customers into a showroom without fresh products.

“We have lost a lot of customers for lack of product,” said Darryl Hazel, president of Lincoln Mercury, in a September interview.

Volvo V50, 2005

His statement is pointed up by Mercury sales figures, which have been cut in half over the past five years and are down again this year compared to 2003 based on sales through September. Mercury will be hard pressed to sell 200,000 units in 2004.

There are other problems with Mercury, too.

When Mercury does make a sale, it is usually to an older customer. The average age of Mercury buyers is 61. Ideally, Mercury needs to cut about 10 to 15 years off that statistic, but lowering the age of its customer has proven difficult over the past few years with just four basic models, the big soft-sprung Mercury Grand Marquis, the aging mid-sized Sable, the slow-selling Monterey minivan and the Mountaineer sport utility.

Also, Mercury has the reputation in some circles of merely selling upscale versions of Ford products.

These problems should be overcome with a batch of new vehicles that, according to Mercury, are more than just rebadged Fords.

The first two examples of this new breed of Mercury are now arriving at dealers. Both new models, the compact Mariner sport utility vehicle and the Montego sedan, are aimed at younger buyers. The Mariner is based on the best-selling Ford Escape, and the Montego is the Mercury version of the all-new nearly full-sized Ford Five Hundred.

These new vehicles have a lot of features unique to Mercury and should give the beleaguered brand a boost over the next 12 months.

Next year Mercury gets the Milan, a compact sedan that will also be built as the Ford Fusion and the Lincoln Zephyr on a Mazda platform.

The Mariner gives Mercury two sport utilities. And a crossover SUV — or sport wagon — is a distinct possibility in the next year or two. It will be based on the Ford Freestyle, which was introduced this fall.

We spent a week in the 2005 Mariner and we think Mercury is on the right track. We’ve always liked the Escape, especially in V-6 mode, and the Mariner is blessed with the same driving and handling attributes.

What separates the Mariner from the Escape is styling, both inside and out. The Escape is a handsome small SUV, so the Mariner stylists had some good-looking sheetmetal to work with.

What stands out is Mercury’s now familiar waterfall-style grille and large headlight enclosures. It gives the Mariner a rugged appearance. The machined alloy wheels, standard on the top Premier trim level, and color-keyed body side cladding convey an upscale appearance from the side view.

But Mercury designers did their best work on the interior. Metallic trim on the doors and center console, and splashes of wood grain especially on the center console, neatly dress up the interior

Leather seating with suede inserts really set a nice tone in our test vehicle, a Premier trim level edition. Chrome door handles and a satin aluminum shift knob add to the upscale feel.

The Escape now comes with the shifter on the floor, not on the dashboard as in previous years, and this is especially appropriate for an up-level SUV.

The guts of the beast are the same as the Escape, and that’s not a bad thing. Two engines are offered. A vastly improved 2.3-liter inline 4 developing 153 horsepower makes the Mariner adequate transportation. The 4-cylinder it replaces was not up to the task.

But the engine that dresses up the Mariner in upscale clothes is the 3.0-liter V-6 developing 200 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque. It can tow up to 3,500 pounds, an excellent rating for a vehicle this size.

While the Duratec V-6 has performed well in the Escape and has proven to be a solid engine since the small SUV hit the market in 2001, it could use a few more horses in the Mercury, if for nothing else to set it apart from the Escape.

We found the Mariner had a satisfying urgency off the line. This urgency runs out quickly by the time your planted foot eases off the accelerator at about 70 miles per hour. But the Mariner is still one of the quickest small SUVs on the market capable of 0 to 60 in under 9 seconds.

The Mariner may be sabotaged somewhat by widely spaced transmission ratios on the 4-speed automatic, and the rather high 4,850 rpm level needed for peak torque.

Switchgear is well-marked and easy to use with the exception of the stereo system, which takes a few trips around the block to gain proper familiarization. We wish Ford had not done away with the tuning knob, but Ford isn’t the only auto company that has gone to switches for station changing.

Our upgraded Mach audio system provided good sound, perhaps a little heavy on the bass.

The seats are a bit firm, but nonetheless offered good support for the couple hundred miles we sat behind the wheel.

Rear legroom is good and the rear seats can be folded flat creating a 66.3 cubic-foot load floor.

One thing we wish Ford would have done is install more sound deadening insulation in the Mariner. We are sure Mercury engineers worked on toning down the interior decibels, but the noise level, particularly from the tires, is a little greater than we would like to hear in a vehicle with Mercury written on the side.

Missing from the top trim level are such amenities you would expect to find in an upscale Mercury such as outside temperature readout, steering wheel controls, lighted cruise controls and automatic climate control.

But the Mariner has a lot of good stuff. The base Convenience trim level comes with such standard equipment as 16-inch alloy wheels, power windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control and CD player for $21,995 in 2-wheel drive and with the 4-cylinder engine.

Move up to the Luxury package for $23,495 and the V-6, 6-disc CD changer and alarm system are added.

The Premier package starting at $25,245 adds machine alloy wheels, heated outside mirrors, the premium Mach audio system, and heated leather/suede seats. The all-wheel drive package raises the base price to $26,995.

All Mariners get antilock brakes. And an optional side canopy safety system with full-length head curtain airbags can be added to all trim levels.

Our test vehicle came with two options, a reverse sensing system and the safety canopy system bringing the bottom line to $26,095.

Add all-wheel drive and you will get a system that automatically shifts torque from front to rear as the situation dictates.

By the way, the Escape has earned a perfect five-star rating for the driver and a four-star rating for the front-seat passenger in government frontal impact crash tests, and five stars in side-impact crashes. We see no reason why the Mariner would not receive the same stellar ratings.

The Mariner offers an attractive luxury look, a car-like ride, decent acceleration, exemplary handling, the safety of all-wheel drive, and a lot of cargo space in a small package at an appealing price.

The Mercury store may, indeed, now be your last stop when shopping for a small sport utility. We can’t see why potential Escape buyers would not elect to put a little more styling pizzazz into their selection for just a few bucks more.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on November 17, 2004 9:34 AM