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Short Drive:
Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner Hybrid

Auto Maker's Small Crossovers
Get Squared Off With Redesign

July 19, 2007 6:59 p.m.

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The last 12 months could be described as the "Year of the Crossover." This begs the question: Why has Ford made its successful Escape and Mercury Mariner crossovers look more like SUVs?

Vehicles that merge the practicality and proportions of sport-utility vehicles with sedan-like handling and fuel consumption have proven popular as car buyers hit by higher fuel costs seek out a compromise between utility and economy.

According to research firm Autodata Corp., crossover sales jumped 18.8% in June alone as the overall automotive market dipped 3%.

Ford Motor Co. is staking part of its dicey corporate turnaround on a pair of brand new crossovers, the 2007 Edge and 2009 Flex. General Motors Corp., Volkswagen AG, Nissan Motor Co., and DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz all have plans to sell similar new models, with a host of other rumored crossovers from the likes of BMW and Mini stirring debate on auto enthusiasts' blogs.

Ford introduced the Escape in 2002 and has marketed it as a traditional SUV alongside its Explorer and Expedition. Like the company's newer crossovers, the Escape and its Mercury-branded sibling, the Mariner, offer reasonable fuel economy in stylish, truck-like packaging.

That formula has worked well for the company. According to, Ford has sold just over one million Escapes and Mariners. Sales in the first half of 2007, about 81,000 units, have been robust as well.

For the 2008 model year, the Escape and Mariner have been restyled, adopting a boxy, SUV-like look, eschewing the sweeping lines that make most crossovers resemble tall sedans or wagons. Both vehicles have crisp, squared edges and prominent front grills, echoing much costlier designs from Land Rover and Hummer.

On the road, the vehicles drive like tall compact cars, they feel light without the tippy feeling associated with true SUVs.

The interiors have also been redone for the new model year, and though roomy and comfortable, the quality and appearance of the plastics and other materials is below import competitors such as the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. There are thoughtful touches, like a built-in cable router for the MP3 player input jack that is standard.

At 29 cubic feet, the Escape's cargo capacity is small for the class, though the vehicle's tall, boxy proportions make loading the trunk easy. Folding the rear seats flat seats creates a large, square cargo space. Neither model is available with a third row.

Unlike some import competitors, both of these Ford SUVs are available with an optional 3-liter, 200 horsepower V-6, while the base engine is a 153-horsepower four cylinder. The larger engine takes its toll on fuel economy, with real-world combined numbers coming in around 19 miles per gallon. Four-wheel drive is available with both engines, though again that option hurts fuel economy.

The most interesting powertrain option is the hybrid, available in both the Ford and Mercury models, which combines an efficient four-cylinder engine with an electric motor and a continuously variable transmission. This engine gets around 30 miles to the gallon in mixed driving. In a week of driving, the all-wheel drive Mariner hybrid posted an average of 27 mpg.

The hybrid transitions seamlessly from all-electric (up to 30 miles an hour) and a small gauge indicates whether the electric motor is helping or the battery is being charged. While the hybrid has V-6-like power, the sounds coming from the engine are far different, thanks to the combination of the CVT and a somewhat noisy four cylinder.

As with other hybrids, the brakes, which are linked to a system that recharges the battery, take some getting used to. Again, the combination of the brakes, CVT transmission and special low-resistance tires make for a slightly unusual driving experience that takes a bit of getting used to.

Drivers eager to more-closely monitor their hybrid should opt for the navigation system, which has several screens that illustrate what is going on with the powertrain and track fuel economy.

The touch-screen navigation is one of the slickest parts of Ford's twins and combines the functions of the audio system. It proved far easier to control than some of the complicated nav systems from European luxury car makers, though isn't cheap at $2,000 as a stand-alone option or nearly $3,400 when part of the hybrid premium package, pushing the sticker price to $31,000.

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I keep reading how journalist's condemn the Escape/Mariner interior as being very sub-par to the Rav-4, but I seriously don't see that at all. I have seen and examined both closely, and I seriously believe that the Rav is equal in quality feel of materials, but suffers from the ugliest dashpanel I have seen in a while. The Escape is much more functional and intuitive and handsome, and looks great at night with that new ice blue color.

2007 Rav4

2008 Escape
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