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MSRP Range: $21,300 - $29,090
Fuel Economy: 19 MPG city / 24 MPG highway

A sensible SUV in a smart package.

The Mercury Mariner offers everything most buyers seek in a small sport-utility vehicle, including the high, commanding seating position and lots of cargo space, with more maneuverability and better fuel economy than behemoth, truck-based SUVs. For 2008, the Mariner simply does those things a little better than before. Like its corporate sibling, the Ford Escape, the Mariner has been thoroughly updated for 2008.

Improvements to the 2008 Mercury Mariner cover the spectrum, adding both safety features and refinement without altering the basic character that has made this small SUV a popular choice across the United States.

Mariner has a bit more truck-style flair than some of its competitors. The new look for 2008 replicates Mercury's mid-size, truck-based Mountaineer sport-utility. Mariner's ride height and seating position, for example, are higher than that of the Honda CR-V or Nissan Rogue. Mariner can tow up to 3,500 pounds, which is substantially more than most vehicles in the class.

Still, Mariner delivers the advantages of other unit-body, car-based SUVs such as the CR-V. The Mariner is more car-like on the road than the Jeep Liberty, for example. Its smooth ride and reasonably agile handling make for pleasant driving, and its compact dimensions make it easy to maneuver and park.

The Mariner offers comfortable seating for four, or five in a pinch, with more headroom than before. Folding the rear seats opens a good-sized cargo area with a flat floor, and space behind the seat surpasses that in the trunk of the typical sedan. Interior storage options have improved for 2008. The finish is more upscale and pleasing, and feature function and switches are among the best. New standard safety features, including a Roll Stability Control system, reset the class benchmark.

The engines are one of the few things carried over from the previous Mariner. The base four-cylinder is adequate, if not particularly exciting, and all variants, including the V6 and Mariner Hybrid, deliver good fuel economy ratings compared to the competition.

The Hybrid drives like a conventional Mariner, for the most part, and demands little additional effort or knowledge from the driver in exchange for improved mileage. Along with the Ford Escape, it's the only full hybrid available in the class. Like other Mariners, the gas-electric Hybrid is offered with either front- or all-wheel drive. The Hybrid models are powered by a more fuel-efficient, 133-hp Atkinson Cycle version of the four-cylinder engine that works in concert with a 70 kilowatt electric motor, all coupled to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. Unlike some mild hybrid SUVs, the Mariner Hybrid can run on 100 percent electric power up to about 25 mph.

In line with a plan to rejuvenate the Mercury brand, Mariner is intended to offer a step up in status over the Escape. Yet it's worth noting that the Escape can be equipped identically to the Mariner, and with the same stuff the prices are essentially the same. In either case, a leather-upholstered V6 4WD, with premium audio, navigation, dual-zone climate control and rear sonar sells for about $30,000. At the higher end of the product line, the differences between Mariner and Escape really comes down to styling details.

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