Mercury's fuel-sipping gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, the Mariner sport-utility vehicle, doesn't get the publicity that other hybrids do.
And it's apropos, considering that in recent years, officials at Mercury's parent company, Ford Motor Co., didn't seem clear about Mercury's role as a car brand or, for that matter, what kind of future Mercury had.
Now, at least, the oft-forgotten brand is getting more company attention again, as evidenced by the 2008 Mariner Hybrid that's refreshed inside and out, has more safety features and is offered in a new, lower-priced version that starts nearly $2,000 less than the 2007 Mariner Hybrid.
Specifically, starting manufacturer's suggested retail price for the new model-a 2008 Mariner Hybrid with front-wheel drive-is about $26,000. This compares with the nearly $28,000 starting price for a 2007 Mariner Hybrid that was offered only with four-wheel drive.
Top SUV fuel economy rating
The new, two-wheel-drive Mariner Hybrid joins its Ford brand sibling-the 2008 Ford Escape-in garnering top SUV fuel mileage ratings from the federal government for the model year.
With front-wheel drive, the 2008 Mariner Hybrid is rated at 34 miles per gallon in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
These ratings use the government's more stringent mileage calculations that go into effect for 2008 and are better than many small cars, including a 2008 Nissan Sentra with gasoline-powered four cylinder.
And it means that a careful Mariner Hybrid driver can travel close to 500 miles on a single, 15-gallon tank of gas.
The reason: The five-passenger Mariner Hybrid is propelled by a 133-horsepower four-cylinder engine and supplements its power with assist from an on-board, 70-kilowatt electric motor that can deliver instant torque and boost total horsepower to 155.
The hybrid system was developed internally by Ford Motor engineers but is so similar to the one that Toyota pioneered in its Prius that Ford has paid Toyota patent royalties.
What about Toyota, you ask? Toyota's hybrid SUVs, including the Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX 400h, have higher-powered V6s mated to electric motors and thus have lower fuel economy ratings than the Mariner Hybrid.
And, the Highlander and Lexus SUVs have considerably higher starting prices than that of the Mariner.
But be aware that owing to Ford officials' premium positioning of Mercury and its products, Mercury's only hybrid vehicle still is priced above the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid on which it's based. The starting retail price for a 2008 Escape Hybrid with two-wheel drive is less than $25,500.
The Mariner Hybrid also is some $5,000 more than a base, gasoline-only, 2008 Mariner with front-wheel drive and a 153-horsepower four-cylinder engine.
Not a new model
The five-passenger Mariner Hybrid compact SUV dates to calendar 2005, when it debuted as a 2006 model. But consumer awareness and sales were low.
The new model promises to do better, though buyers won't find anything-not even the word "hybrid"-anywhere on the 2008 Mariner Hybrid sheet metal.
Instead, a subtle green leaf entwined with the image of a road is part of the Mariner badge that's on every rear liftgate and front door.
Otherwise, the Mariner Hybrid looks like other 2008 Mariners, with new, larger-than-ever, silver-colored grille, big Mercury logos and taillights that look almost customized because of their white and chrome design. (You will find the word "hybrid" under the hood on the engine cover.)
Inside, about the only thing that alerts a driver that this is a hybrid is the charge/assist gauge in the instrument panel that can indicate when the onboard nickel-metal hydride battery pack is being engaged.
The Mariner Hybrid also has a continuously variable transmission that a driver operates like an automatic.
Mostly drives like a regular vehicle
Like many other gas-electric hybrids, the Mariner starts a bit strangely. In the tester, for example, I heard a click from behind the back seats, where the onboard battery pack was. And a diagram of an SUV with green arrows underneath illuminates in the instrument panel to alert the driver that the Mariner Hybrid is on.
But once I started driving, the Mariner Hybrid tester with two-wheel drive felt-and sounded-more like a regular vehicle.
For example, there was some wind noise at highway speeds and some body roll in curves and turns.
Unfortunately, I also heard a good amount of suspension noise from the area of the 16-inch wheels, where unsprung weight-basically, unmanaged mass at the wheels-was a regular, intruding sensation for driver and passengers.
On the other hand, I appreciated that I didn't experience any hesitation or stutter when the Mariner Hybrid's electric power would add in with the gas engine power, such as when I was accelerating. This kind of seamless mixing and matching of power has been problematic in some, earlier hybrids.
I just wished that I didn't hear a high-pitch whine inside the Mariner Hybrid now and then. It was annoying when it wasn't covered up by the radio, and it seemed to have something to do with the operation of the electric motor. So I never could drive in automotive "silence."
Four cylinder is weak on its own
Mercury officials say the hybrid can travel up to 25 miles an hour on electric power alone.
But the electric power also supplements acceleration at just about any speed and helps give this weighty Mariner adequate get up and go.
Too bad that the 2.3-liter four cylinder can be very buzzy during hard acceleration, and the buzziness carried through to a vibration in the test Mariner's steering wheel.
Still, I managed 26 mpg in combined city/highway driving, and this was without modifying my somewhat aggressive driving habits to conserve fuel.
Odds and ends
Like other Mariners, the hybrid gives driver and passengers a pleasing, bit higher ride above the pavement than does a car. I could see through many sedans in front of me, for example.
Yet, getting inside was easy. At 5 feet 4, I merely turned and set myself onto the front seats. Rear seats, however, sat a bit higher up and I needed to scooch in a bit.
Disappointingly, rear-door windows open barely halfway, and some trim pieces on the test Mariner Hybrid weren't consistently aligned.
Still, legroom, front and rear, can be apportioned for comfortable riding for most adults. Note that the Mariner Hybrid does not offer third-row seats.
New for 2008, Mercury added standard side-mounted, front-seat airbags to the safety features.
The 2008 Mariner Hybrid first earned only three out of five stars in driver protection in government frontal crash testing. A later test showed improvement to four out of five stars.
The front-passenger rating each time remained at five out of five stars and was the same, top rating that the Mariner Hybrid earned for side-crash protection.
A final note: The Mariner Hybrid has a third sibling-the 2008 Mazda Tribute Hybrid. But in 2008, this vehicle is only going to be sold in California.