2009 Mercury Mariner Voga Review
Love at second sight
By Igor Holas
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to review the improved-for-2009 Escape/Mariner line. I previously tested the 2008 Escape Hybrid and was less than enamored. At the time, I criticized the bare-bones feel of the cheap, beige interior, outdated navigation system and the missing SYNC. The hybrid technology and its uniqueness in this segment were its saving graces, but overall, the vehicle did not win me over.
A lot has changed since February. First of all, I had the opportunity to drive several different vehicles, and realized just how many of them fell short of my expectations – I am picky, and realized I had to lower my standards. Moreover, the vehicle itself has changed. The 2009 Escape/Mariner saw a completely new line of engines and transmissions, improving power and mileage. Also refined were the brakes and exhaust system. Finally, the interior received some needed tweaks. Ford took a detailed look at the interior, addressing both the biggest omissions (such as outdated navigation, or lack of SYNC), and the easy fixes (such as exposed screws), improving its overall feel.
The test vehicle that Ford dropped off this time was the 2009 Mariner Voga with the new 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine, and also new six-speed automatic transaxle. For two weeks, this powertrain made the Escape/Mariner the most fuel efficient small SUVs on the market, before Toyota announced the 2009 RAV4, which offers marginally better city mileage. Regardless, it is still about the most efficient way to get around in an SUV. Compared to last year’s 2.3 liter engine and four-speed transmission, the new engine delivers its power much more smoothly and readily. The vehicle rarely feels slow, but in hilly terrains, it will not let you forget it only has four cylinders and the corresponding lack of low end torque. The transmission does a great job keeping the engine happy, while maintaining good fuel economy. The shifts are almost imperceptible, but quick when needed. The engine itself still lacks some of the refinement of the Japanese competition, and at idle transfers noticeable shake to the cabin; however, once underway, the ride is smooth and without much vibration. The EPA rated mileage is 20 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway; my observed economy was just about on par with that. While you can reasonably expect to achieve the 20 in city driving, any semblance of spirited drive will lower the mileage to about 17 miles per gallon. On the highway, you will only rarely drop below 28 miles per gallon, and if you take it easy, you may often remain above 30 miles per gallon. On average in mixed use, I was able to keep the mileage gauge at about 24 miles per gallon, which is nothing to sneeze at in an SUV.
When I tested the 2008 Escape Hybrid I was so fascinated by all the technology that I never tested its handling and the oh-so-emphasized “fun-to-drive” factor. This time, I took the Mariner on some curvy roads and discovered its fun-loving nature. It might be a little short of the confident stance of the Nissan Rogue, but the Mariner is surefooted and perfectly controlled in all situations. The brakes (despite using drums in the back) are confident, and strong, and I never asked for more – indeed, in braking tests, the Mariner easily reached the point of ABS activation.
Externally, the Mariner differs from the Escape in nose and tail styling, and while the changes are minor, the result is a more refined, big-city look. The front mask and headlamps have a smooth, continuous integration, and some neat details make the whole look interesting. The Voga trim added some welcome “bling” to the look with a chrome-trimmed grille, added badges and even chrome on the roof rails. Combined with new Tuxedo black color, the Mariner looked classy and upscale. There is not much aggressiveness to the look (which might bother some consumers), but the look is simple, straightforward, stylish, modern, and in black, it’s downright elegant.
The interior furthers the story of stylish elegance. The Voga package includes a stylish black/cream color scheme. The dash is almost completely black, with chrome and few cream accents, but the seats are a very light shade, providing a contrast that pleases the eye and the brain with an aura of luxury. This color scheme, along with the piano black appliqué on the interior is about the biggest factor that changed my opinion on the interior. The 2008 Escape Hybrid had a dull beige-on-beige palette with cheap looking silver accents, and lack of chrome. It is amazing how much a simple change in color can make the interior not only appealing, but attractive. The seats have “VOGA” stitched on them, and while they lack lateral support, they are comfortable. The seat-back recline is still manual, and the steering wheel still does not telescope, so some people might have trouble finding a comfortable seating position.
The back seats of the Escape/Mariner remain unchanged, and I still find the headrests positioned too far rearward, making them useless. The cargo area, freed of the burden of holding the hybrid’s battery, provides two underfloor compartments, but you have to remove the one-piece trunk mat to access them.
Finally, one big complaint I had about the 2008 Escape Hybrid was the outdated (even relative to other 2008 Fords) navigation system with confusing route logic, a robotic voice, and lack of voice recognition. For 2009, Ford skipped the voice-command navigation of the 2008 models and upgraded the Escape straight to the new-for-2009 “Next Generation” navigation system. While the front face differs little from the old system, the both the software underlying hardware are all new. The new system features a new interface in an attractive blue hue, as well as a useful “Home” screen providing navigation, radio, and climate control summary information at a glance.
The maps were redesigned and now include not only traffic, but also incredibly detailed intersection schemes, which are very useful. The new system also incorporates the Sirius Travel-Link, a subscription service that links your vehicle to current traffic, weather forecast, gas prices, and even sports scores. Some of this information (say sports scores) may seem silly in a car, but I am positive this feature will become a must-have for someone out there. The system operated flawlessly, and I really enjoyed using it. I did not find any major or even minor annoyances with the system, and thoroughly enjoyed using it. The 2009 Mariner/Escape also offers Ford’s SYNC system, an overdue addition. The system worked as well as it has in other applications, making it an irresistible option in my book.
I might be called superficial in response to this review, but I did fall in love with the Mariner/Escape after all. Ford still struggles with making all their interiors feel inviting, and the difference in the Escape and Mariner reviews points just in that direction. I am a big stickler on not feeling like I sold myself short – especially on large purchases – so spoils count; the beige, decontented interior of the 2008 Escape Hybrid lacked just that. Ford did introduce a Hybrid Limited model for the 2009 Escape with most of the higher-end features, but you can still only get it in monochrome beige.
The new engine and transmission offer a great combination of power, responsiveness, and efficiency. While the little four-cylinder (and any four cylinder) is a little frustrating in spirited driving, requiring more labor from the transmission, the combination as installed in the 2009 Mariner worked seamlessly.
Last time, I advised readers to take a really hard look at the Vue as an alternative to the Escape/Mariner. I still believe the Vue has the best interior in the segment, but its lower fuel economy and sluggish nature when equipped with a four cylinder, makes it an inferior choice for those looking at four-cylinder cute-utes. The improvements to the 2009 Ford and Mercury make them attractive choices in the marketplace, and to me, they now tie the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 as the best small SUVs available.
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