Mercury Mariner (Hybrid), 2006: The Weekly Driver Car Review

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The Mercury Mariner is among several nearly interchangeable compact sport utility vehicles. In fact, the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribune are remarkably similar vehicles, but the Mariner gains an advantage with its luxury-trimmed, hybrid edition for 2006.And it was the upgraded hybrid model I drove for my weekly test during a recent favorite journey, an estimated 500-mile round-trip excursion from Sacramento to California’s central coast.

Traveling to the oceanfront cities of Santa Cruz, Aptos and Rio Del Mar not only provides a great getaway, but the route offers numerous driving scenarios — high-speed, open-road sections along Interstate 5 to winding, two-lane steep mountain inclines and descents on single-lane roads.

The Mariner is available with three engine options, with the hybrid teaming an all-wheel-drive, four-cylinder gas engine with a battery-powered electric motor. The electric motor doesn’t require plug-in charging and it uses a continuously variable automatic transmission.

The Mariner’s hybrid system automatically runs on one or both power sources. The hybrid and the larger V6 option also include four-wheel disc brakes and an anti-lock braking system (ABS).

So how does it all fare?

Like most SUVs, the Mariner provides good visibility and versatility. It offers a surprisingly adept turning radius and a smooth, steady ride considering its vehicle class. Likewise, like its hybrid brethren, the Mariner is particularly quiet during stops when the electric motor dominates.

Twice during my test, the vehicle’s ABS brakes worked spectacularly.  On one night occasion, a deer darted across the road in close proximity and I hit the brakes suddenly and hard. I stopped quickly and without skidding. I also had to hit the brake hard again when a driver using a cellphone abruptly cut across three lanes of traffic without notice just after exiting a toll booth.

Hybrids aren’t known for swift acceleration or power to spare, and that’s certainly holds true for the Mariner. It’s not slow (it has a 0-60 mph rating of 9.6 seconds). But accelerating does take an extra effort, and the hybrid could use some extra  horsepower on steady inclines.

The Mariner has a handsome exterior with nicely contoured edges, a complementary front grill and well-designed front and rear lights. It has room for five adults, good leg and head room, and good cargo space with individual window and rear hatch openings.

The hybrid’s standard features include: air conditioning, power steering, tilt leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, cloth upholstery, front bucket seats, center console, cup holders, split folding rear seat, power mirrors, windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, keypad entry, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, digital clock, tachometer, variable-intermittent wipers, visor mirrors, map lights, rear defogger, rear wiper/washer, floor mats, theft-deterrent system, fog lights and rear back-up hazard detection system.

The Mariner’s leather trim, navigation system, side airbags and heated power mirrors are all part of the nearly $4,000 “premium package.” The navigation system includes displays for power flow and fuel economy, but the screen is particularly small.

Hybrids, of course, are increasingly popular because of their fuel efficiency. I filled the tank once during my weekly test driving after a good mix of freeway and city driving conditions and averaged 28.3 mph. That’s just under the manufacturer’s highway mileage estimate, and it’s a good rating for an SUV.

With its option costs and delivery and destination charges, the Mariner’s final coast approaches $33,000. That’s more than many of its competitors, but Mercury hopes the vehicle’s good looks and steady marks in most categories will help it attract a good share of the crowded SUV market.

Safety Features — Driver and front passenger front and optional side airbags.

Fuel Mileage (estimates) — 33 mpg (city), 29 mpg (highway).

Warranty — Bumper to bumper, 3 years/36,000 miles; Powertrain, 8 years/100,00 miles; Corrosion, 5 years/unlimited miles; Roadside Assistance, 3 years/36,000 miles.

Base Price — $29,225.00

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