2006 Mercury Mariner hybrid

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In theory, a hybrid SUV is a wonderful concept. Decent gas mileage (as much as low 30s around town) without sacrificing the roominess, versatility — and power — that make SUVs so appealing.

My Mercury Mariner hybrid SUV test vehicle delivered on the roominess and the versatility — just like its Ford Escape cousin. But unfortunately, the Mariner’s “real world” mileage was disappointing (empty tank from full in about 280 miles) and the power/performance even more so.

Maybe there was something wrong with my tester, but it often struggled to maintain speeds above 50 mph; lots of engine noise, with the tachometer needle edging to redline (and surging to 3,500 RPM and higher) during normal highway-style driving. This despite the “tag team” resources of a 155 hp gas engine supplemented by the extra power of twin electric motors and a DC electric battery pack. In theory, acceleration ought to have been better than what you’d get with the gas-only, four-banger version of the Mariner — and comparable to the performance of the non-hybrid 200-hp 3 liter V-6 that’s available optionally in this vehicle — but without the bigger engine’s hunger for fuel.

Part of the problem may be the Mariner hybrid’s standard Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), a new type of automatic transmission that increases efficiency by allowing the engine to rev to its peak powerband (and hold it there) during acceleration — as opposed to the regular automatic transmission’s process of upshifting through a series of forward gears, with engine revs rising (and falling) as you go. Nonetheless, several passengers asked whether there was a problem with the Mariner as we ascended grades and the engine surged to near-redline and stayed there, making quite a racket as it did — even though we were only running around 55-65 mph. It was disconcerting to see the the tach needle constantly running to the high end of the scale. Even if this was not actually hurting anything, it gives the impression the engine’s working extremely (and unusually) hard to do its job. Potential buyers could be scared off by that during a test drive.

To be fair to the Mariner, I live in a rural mountainous area at an altitude of nearly 4,000 ft. “Normal” driving for me frequently includes going up and down these mountains, changing elevation by as much as 2,500 ft in less than a few miles. Not ideal driving for a hybrid — any hybrid. These vehicles are designed to deliver optimal performance at lower altitudes and more importantly, lower average speeds — certainly not while climbing steep grades. Almost all of my driving is basically “highway” driving — open roads at speeds higher than 45 mph, where hybrids are least efficient. This type of use means the Mariner’s hybrid powertrain rarely gets to work in pure electric mode, so it’s burning fuel almost all the time — and “max power” is being demanded much more often than it would be in an urban/suburban setting.

Add to that the weight the Mariner hybrid must cart around. With the extra bulk of its hybrid motors and electric battery pack — plus the standard all-wheel-drive system — it weighs some 450 lbs. more than the non-hybrid, V-6/FWD Mariner (3,787 lbs. vs. 3,328 lbs.). With two or three passengers onboard, the Mariner’s hybrid powertrain — a 2.3 liter, 155-hp gas engine supplemented by a pair of small electric motors — labors sweatily under the yoke of more than 4,000 lbs. That’s only a few hundred pounds off the curb weight of a mid-sized, V-8-powered SUV such as Ford’s Explorer.

This probably explains why my tester’s tank ran dry in roughly 300 miles — substantially less than the 495 mile range “estimated” by the EPA. Based on the Mariner hybrid’s 15 gallon tank (which is slightly smaller than the non-hybrid Mariner’s 16.5 gallon tank), that works out to approximately 20-23 mpg in “real world” highway driving mileage — well below the 29 mpg touted by the EPA. In city driving, the Mariner hybrid’s supposed to be good for as much as 33 mpg — and may well be. But I can’t really speak to that as most of my “loop” consisted of the previously mentioned highway-type driving.

Maybe you’ll do better.

In fact, you almost certainly would — provided you live (and drive) in an area where low-speed, stop-and-go motoring at speeds under 50 mph is the rule rather than the exception. Here, the Mariner hybrid would deliver the goods — SUV roominess (65 cubic feet with the second row seats folded flat) and versatility (including the ability to pull small trailers) with the fuel economy (and low emissions) of a much smaller vehicle. Its standard AWD system would keep you moving in bad weather, too — and without saddling you with the typical 15 mpg performance of a conventional 4×4 SUV.

But if you live in the boonies, as I do, this vehicle is probably not for you – and could even end up costing you as much in monthly fuel bills as a regular, gas-only Mariner, with much higher up-front costs and not-so-spectacular performance thrown in for good measure.

The ’06 Mariner hybrid’s base price of $29,225 (which also includes AC, keyless entry and most power options) is roughly $4,000 more than the base price of the similarly equipped, non-hybrid Mariner with V-6 engine and AWD ($25,035). And some six grand more than the non-hybrid Mariner with four-cylinder engine and AWD ($23,130).

It would take many years to make up such a large difference in up front costs via lower over-the-road fuel costs — even under the best of circumstances.

If you live/drive as I do, the odds are you never will.

The EPA fuel economy rating for the regular V-6 Mariner with AWD — 23 mpg/highway — is about exactly what my Mariner hybrid tester returned in “real world” driving. Of course, the hybrid does produce a lot less harmful pollution than the regular Mariner (especially the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide). And that may be very important to environmentally conscious potential buyers. But they should have no illusions about the financial aspects of this deal.

Four grand extra is a lot to pay to save the planet — even for the seriously Green among us.

Throw it in the Woods?

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