2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD

Count me as someone who understands why some people want to drive small SUVs rather than wagons or hatchbacks. The taller seating position, the extra cargo space, and the impression of greater overall safety (whether real or perceived) are reason enough to sway many buyers, especially those with families - and the fact that you can now drive such a vehicle and still get close to 30 mpg is a huge plus.

Ford has greatly improved the Mercury Mariner (and its twin, the Ford Escape) in the last two years, concentrating on the styling for 2008 and the mechanicals for 2009. The interior of the Mariner is greatly improved over what it was a couple of years ago, but there is still some evidence of cost-cutting, notably the cheap-looking plastic vent covers. Still, the overall look and feel of the interior is quite nice.

On the road, the transition between gasoline and electric power is practically unnoticeable. The trick is to get up to speed and tap the brake slightly, at which point the vehicle will switch to electric power, although you might not notice it unless you're looking at the RPM gauge. It's quite a difference from our long-term Toyota Camry hybrid, which noticeably surged and/or stuttered when switching between power sources.

Ford claims that the Mariner/Escape Hybrid is the "most fuel efficient SUV in the world." That's a huge selling point in today's market - here's hoping the price premium (an estimated $33,000 for the particular vehicle we tested) won't turn away too many potential buyers.

Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor

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