Mercury's mysterious appeal to women can't be denied
Warren Brown / The Washington Post
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla -- With smoke from nearby forest and brush fires clouding the International Speedway here, I retreated to my hotel room to breathe filtered air and write this confession.
It is a simple matter: Ford is right and I am wrong.
It apparently makes perfect sense for Ford to hold on to its Mercury Division, the elimination of which I have advocated for several years. It makes even more sense for Mercury to target women in its product development and marketing strategies.
This recantation is painful. I hate admitting that I'm wrong after investing so many words, spoken and written, in asserting that I'm right. But I cannot ignore what I've seen and heard, and cannot dismiss what I've learned.
Call my conversion the Mariner Hybrid epiphany. It happened like this:
I drove the 2008 versions of the Ford Escape compact sport-utility vehicle -- both the all-gasoline and the gas-electric hybrid models. I found them very much to my liking: attractive inside and out, possessed of reasonable utility and fuel economy, and very pleasant, albeit not necessarily thrilling, on the road.
Both my wife, Mary Anne, and my assistant, Ria Manglapus, two women who are not the least bit chary about expressing opinions, also liked the Escape SUVs. I figured that was that.
But then Ford shipped the front-wheel-drive Mariner Hybrid. I vowed not to waste my time with it. I stood firmly on the rock of reason. The Mariner is just an Escape with another name, I said. Ford simply changed the grille, I said. You ladies go on and drive the thing, I told Mary Anne and Ria. I have more important things to do.
After her first day in the Mariner, Mary Anne came home raving: "I love it!" she said. "Why didn't we have this one before? It's so much more fun than that Escape. It's different. It's more friendly. It makes more sense."
I was stunned. My wife is an intelligent woman, an elementary school teacher with a master's degree and many hours of postgraduate training. More to the point, she is the consumer from **** -- a woman who thinks nothing of driving dozens of miles to return an item, even something as ordinary as jar of mayonnaise, that she's found wanting in quality or a few cents above the norm in price.
But there she stood telling me that the Mariner Hybrid was distinctively different from the Ford Escape Hybrid she'd driven a few weeks earlier, "more friendly" and "less of an SUV."
Then, she hit me with this: "Some more test cars are out there (in the driveway). Does Ria have to drive the Mariner?"
"Yes," I said.
Ria, too, is as smart as a whip. She's tough. She could run a country, and sometimes, I think she does. She looked straight past those other vehicles in the driveway and picked the Mariner Hybrid.
There is an easy way to tell when Ria likes, or does not like, a vehicle. If she doesn't like it, she returns it quickly and says "interesting" in a way that reeks of derision. Or, she just laughs and tells me how much she doesn't like it.
But when Ria likes a vehicle, she returns it reluctantly, and usually with more miles than it seems possible to accumulate in several days of driving. She brought back the Mariner Hybrid with lots of miles. And she, too, commented that she enjoyed it much more than the Ford Escape.
So, it's clear that I'm wrong. Maybe it's the treatment of the Mercury Mariner's front end -- less aggressive than that of the Escape, "more friendly," as Mary Anne said. Maybe it's the 2008 Mariner's new, spiffy interior. Maybe the people at Mercury sprinkled female allure powder, or something, all over the Mariner's passenger cabin. I just don't know.
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