Charlie Riedel  /  AP file
The 2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid is an upscale version of Ford's Escape Hybrid.
updated 3/7/2006 9:14:09 AM ET 2006-03-07T14:14:09

Get a new Mercury Mariner Hybrid this year, and get a tax break.

The estimated $1,950 hybrid vehicle federal tax credit for the Mariner isn’t the only perk that comes with this compact sport utility vehicle with gasoline-electric power.

With only a standard four-wheel drive, the Mariner rates a bit better in gasoline mileage — a combined 31 miles a gallon for city and highway travel — than Toyota’s hybrid SUVs, according to the federal government.

The purchase also can be satisfying for shoppers who prefer a domestic vehicle, because the 2006 Mariner Hybrid is built alongside its twin, the Ford Escape Hybrid, at a Kansas City, Mo., assembly plant. Toyota’s hybrid SUVs come from overseas plants.

But the price for this Mariner isn’t low.

A five-passenger Mariner Hybrid, which uses a four cylinder engine mated to an electric motor, starts at $29,840, including delivery charge. That’s nearly $6,100 more than a base four-cylinder-powered, gas-only Mariner with four-wheel drive.

Competitors include the 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid, which starts at $27,515, and the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which starts at $33,635 for a two-wheel-drive model. All Highlander Hybrids have a V6 engine.

The Mariner Hybrid is basically an upscale version of the Escape Hybrid, which is in its third year on the market.

The interior appointments are ritzier in the Mariner.

Low profile, quiet at stops
On the outside, styling is attractively mainstream. But my neighbors said they had no idea that I was driving a hybrid because the styling differences between the hybrid version and the regular, gas-only Mariner are so minor.

They didn’t notice the hybrid badging but they sure noticed the difference during the drive. The Mariner was often quiet at stoplights as the gasoline engine shut down to conserve fuel. The engine started right up when it was time to get going again.

As in the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Mariner Hybrid uses a 2.3-liter inline, four-cylinder engine mated to a 70-kilowatt electric motor for its power. The matching and mixing of the power sources are all controlled electronically, and the driver doesn’t do anything but drive.

The electric part of the system is monitored and replenished via regenerative braking and onboard power production. The power is stored in an onboard nickel metal hydride battery pack.

Maximum horsepower is 155, which is nearly the same as the 153 horses in the base, gas-only Mariner with 2.3-liter four cylinder.

But where the gas-only Mariner with four-wheel-drive is rated at 21 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway for a combined 22.5 mpg, the fuel-conscious Mariner Hybrid is rated at 33 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway for a combined 31 mpg.

Plus, a driver enjoys some decent get up and go right after starting from a stop. Indeed, the Mariner Hybrid tester at times seemed to burst forward. This is because electric motors can provide top torque right from the start — as opposed to gasoline engines working their way up to peak torque.

Loud on highways
But driving the Mariner Hybrid wasn’t as satisfying on the highway as it was in city traffic.

On freeways, the Hybrid’s four cylinder seemed to reach its limits and keep straining, with a buzzy sound, when I wanted quick passing power. The electric power assist helped some during these instances, to be sure. But the lack of noticeable shifts from the continuously variable transmission and the noisy engine sounds weren’t comforting.

I enjoyed sitting up a bit from the road in the Mariner Hybrid and having good views over cars ahead. But the vehicle’s seats weren’t so high that I had to hoist myself up. I could easily open a door and just slide onto the seat. It helped that the seats in the test vehicle had optional premium leather trim.

At nearly 3,800 pounds, the Mariner Hybrid is the heaviest of all Mariners, including the top Mariner with V6.

The weight isn’t noticeable in slow speed traffic. But on twisty mountain roads, a driver can feel how the added weight changes this small SUV’s driving and handling dynamics.

Inside the hybrid, the optional navigation screen seems a bit small in size compared with those found in other vehicles. And I wished the buttons at each side of the screen were a bit larger, too.

The hybrid’s compact size helps make parking maneuvers easy.

But I was surprised that a full complement of airbags wasn’t standard on this near-$30,000 SUV. Curtain airbags and side-mounted seat airbags are a $595 option, unless a buyer pops for the $3,795 optional premium package.

Still, even without side airbags, the Mariner Hybrid received five out of five stars for front- and rear-seat occupant protection in a side crash test. The vehicle received four out of five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in frontal crash testing.

Consumer Reports said reliability of the gas-powered Mariner has been better than average.

A final note: The hybrid tax credit was part of the U.S. Energy Act of 2005 and applies to hybrid vehicles purchased as of Jan. 1. Credit amounts vary by vehicle — Ford officials estimated the $1,950 amount for the Mariner Hybrid — and have some limitations.

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