Ford Motor Company finally realized that if you want to sell a high-tech car, you need to put high-tech gadgets in the cabin. In truth, the highest tech feature about the 2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid is still the hybrid power train. But the newest model gets significantly improved cabin electronics over previous generations.
The Mercury Mariner Hybrid and the Ford Escape Hybrid share the same platform, which includes body style, seating configuration, hybrid power train, and cabin electronics. The key difference between the two cars is that the Mercury presents a more refined style, sort of like the clothes you might wear out to a nice restaurant as compared to what you'll lounge around in on a Saturday.
We've seen a lot of cars with a similar body style to the Mariner Hybrid recently, such as the Honda CR-V, the Mitsubishi Outlander, and the Suzuki Grand Vitara. All have a practical configuration, with four doors, easy access to the seats, and a rear cargo area that can be maximized by folding down the rear seats. The Mariner's design is chunky, giving the car a rugged look, although the grille suggests the refinement the Mercury brand is supposed to represent.
The previous generation of Mariner/Escapes had a tiny navigation screen and a navigation system running off of CDs. The new Mariner Hybrid gets a DVD-based navigation system with a proper-size screen, plus an in-dash six-disc changer. Its hybrid power train remains the same as in previous models, using a version of Toyota's Synergy system. This hybrid system is currently the best in the business.
Test the tech: Zero-emission driving
Because the hybrid system in the Mariner Hybrid can drive the car under electric power at low speeds, we staged a contest where CNET Car Tech editors Wayne Cunningham and Kevin Massy would see how long they each could keep the car going before the gas engine would start up. Each got their turn in the car, with a stopwatch keeping track of how long the car was under way.
We staged the contest on the east side of San Francisco's Potrero Hill. We chose that location so each driver could take the car down the long hill of 19th Street in order to charge up the car's hybrid battery pack before the start of each run. During the run down the hill, each driver kept the car's regenerative brakes lightly applied, which sent electricity to the battery. A power-flow diagram on the car's LCD showed the level of battery charge.
Kevin Massy went first, starting off at the bottom of the hill with a fully charged battery. Knowing hard acceleration would quickly cause the battery to drain and the engine to start up, he kept a very light foot on the gas pedal. The Mariner Hybrid uses both its gas engine and electric motor to jointly power the car when hard acceleration is needed. Kevin meandered around city blocks with little traffic, just off Third Street in an industrial part of the city. At 7 minutes and 38 seconds, the battery display showed empty and the gas engine kicked into life.
Wayne Cunningham went next, running the Mariner Hybrid to the top of the hill, then down to recharge the battery pack. He drove a similar course as Kevin Massy, keeping to little trafficked industrial streets, with a light foot on the gas pedal. The car rolled along silently, using no gas and causing no emissions. But at 5 minutes and 1 second, the engine started up, running electricity back into the completely discharged battery. The battery hadn't gotten completely charged up for this second run, which partially explains the shorter running time.
In the cabin
With its clean-looking interior, the Mariner Hybrid accomplished its mission of being the upscale brother to the Ford Escape. The aluminum-look facing that covers the center stack contributes to the clean, modern look. And we were happy to see a regular-size navigation screen in the center stack after our experience with the previous generation of this car.
While the new DVD-based navigation system is a big improvement, it uses an ugly map with low resolution. We saw this same navigation/stereo component in the Ford Expedition, although there is no voice-command function in the Mariner Hybrid. Besides its ugly map display, the navigation system is very functional. It has touch-screen operation, accurate route guidance, and many methods for entering a destination. We particularly like the ability to find the nearest freeway entrance or exit. You can also choose a destination from the map, but a couple of too-large onscreen buttons make this difficult. During route guidance, the navigation system reads out the names of streets, a nice high-end feature.