Driven: 2009 Mercury Mariner

October 31, 2008
Last year, we wrote about the much-improved 2008 Mercury Mariner. The fresh exterior and interior were welcomed, especially considering there hadn't been much change since the Mariner came out as a 2005 model. (Most TCC readers know that Mariner shares much with the Ford Escape that was introduced in 2001 and was hardly changed until 2008 … so the Mariner was really a 2001 model, not a 2005 in terms of technology.)

Ford Motor Company's lack of development cash made itself apparent in the fact that the 2008 Mariner was only half-a-true-revamp. Engines, transmissions, and many chassis components were carried over from 2007. In summary, the 2008 Mariner was a step in the right direction, but didn't really stand out as a complete model changeover.

Great news; the 2009 Mercury Mariner completes the model freshening started in 2008. This model has the powertrain and chassis upgrades that were so missed last year. Without being snotty, this is a genuine case of better late than never.

In terms of styling, inside and out the 2009 Mercury Mariner is the same as 2008, and that's not a bad thing. The upright exterior design still looks fresh. Inside, upgraded materials and appointments (compared to 2007) surround the two-tiered instrument panel. The blue-green instrument lighting is so easy to read that your author who suffers from visual color impairment (ed.; have you seen his wardrobe?) wishes all gauge clusters featured the same illumination and color schemes. The front seats are comfortable, and the view out the little SUV is well above sedan-roof height. The rear seats are livable, but the bottom cushions are a bit short for adults. Folding the rear seats is also a bit convoluted, taking three steps to go completely flat and leaving you nowhere to store the rear headrests.

So while the interior is largely as it was in 2008, things changed under the sheet metal for 2009. The most important news is the availability of six-speed automatic transmissions. This major upgrade impacts four- and six-cylinder models (the gearbox is optional on the four-cylinder and standard on the six-). What a change it makes. The extra gears help improve fuel mileage while simultaneously cutting acceleration times to 60 mph.

Extra quickness and efficiency also comes from improvements made to the engines themselves. The standard engine on the 2009 Mercury Mariner is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that now produces 171 horsepower thanks to more displacement (a 0.2-liter increase), electronic throttle control, and variable valve timing. Horsepower in 2007 was just 153.

The four-cylinder used to be offered only with a four-speed automatic. A five-speed manual is standard for 2009, with 22/28 city/highway mpg (two-wheel drive). Most Mariners will be equipped with the optional six-speed because, come on, how many Mercury drivers do you know who want to drive a stick shift? The new ZF-sourced automatic delivers smooth shifts and much better performance than was available in 2008 while matching the manual gearbox in highway economy (city economy is down two mpg).

If you're looking for more power, the significantly enhanced 3.0-liter V-6 now makes 240 horsepower, up 40 from 2008. It's easy to feel this twenty-percent power increase. The added juice comes from improved internal hardware including new cylinder heads, pistons and exhaust manifolds. Fuel economy is 18 mpg city, 26 mpg highway.

Mercury estimates that both the four- and six-cylinder Mariner models are each at least one second quicker to the 60 mph than 2008 models. Fuel economy also increased across the line. If max economy is your goal, the Mariner is also offered with a sophisticated single-mode hybrid powertrain that we've driven and like.

Four-wheel drive is available with either engine, but don't be confused by the 4WD badge. The Mariner is not designed for off-road use, but feel free to tackle gravel driveways with abandon. As with many crossovers and "cute utes," the Mariner uses a fully automatic on-demand all-wheel-drive system. Power normally goes to the front wheels, and only when the vehicle detects wheel slippage does a percentage of torque get siphoned off and sent to the rear wheels. Spreading out the power helps increase grip and control just when you need it. No driver intervention is required.

The suspension has been completely retuned. New struts, shock absorbers and sway bars have significantly refined the ride of the 2009 Mercury Mariner. Previous versions of this SUV have been bouncy. No longer. This is not to say that the Mariner rides like a Lexus, but it no longer feels like a hobbyhorse. Electronic roll stability control is standard.

If you're shopping for a compact, five-passenger SUV, the 2009 Mercury Mariner is a solid choice … now that it has been fully revamped.

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