It was on a steep, rocky and narrow dirt downgrade in the Cleveland National Forest when I had my first “gotcha” moment in Mercury’s hybrid 4×4 SUV, the Mariner.

While attempting to steer around another rut and boulder without hitting the side of a cliff or rolling off the other side, I glanced at the tachometer.

It read zero.

Gasoline engines today are so smooth and quiet, it’s not unusual to lose track of the engine when you’re otherwise engaged at trying to keep all four wheels on the ground.

But the reason I hadn’t noticed anything from the 2.3 liter, four-cylinder engine under the hood was that it had shut off.

Everything in the car — brakes, CD system, power steering and any power I needed — was running off the battery. Since I was under 25 miles per hour, the gasoline engine was asleep.

My trip through nature, at least headed downhill at this speed, was emissions-free. I was driving green through the green.

The Mariner, and its corporate twin, the Ford Escape, have had hybrid versions since the 2006 model year. My ‘07 Mariner performed well during two Southern California off-road trips: through the mountains off the Ortega Highway west of Lake Elsinore, and on sand in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. And for a conservation-minded driver, leaving only ruts from tires is pretty appealing; there are no exhaust fumes as long as it’s running only on the electric motors.

Ford is scheduled introduce restyled 2008 models in January 2007, but I thought you might like to know about the 2007 model I tested for a week in December 2006.

Off road, the Mariner handles like any all-wheel drive: competent on loose dirt, a steep dirt road and sand. It isn’t equipped with a four-wheel-drive low setting, so I didn’t try any serious rock climbing. But for a weekend family outing in the grocery-getter, it would be a lot of fun.

Although classified as a small SUV, it had plenty of room for four adults, and during my week of testing, the other three adults in the Mariner were my short, elderly relatives. The Mariner is a bit higher than a regular car, but with two of the three pushing age 80, they had no problem with the small step-up into the cabin. While there, I heard no complaints about rough ride, vibration or other traditional truck issues. They were impressed with the leather interior and the other niceties in this upscale SUV.

Then there’s the drive train. For first-time riders in a hybrid, there’s a bit of concern when stopped or driving below 25 miles per hour because the gasoline engine is off. The old-school septuagenarians were a bit uncomfortable until they looked at the dash-centered screen displaying the fuel economy, which was about 31 in our drive around downtown San Diego.

Off road, the gas mileage hit 40 at one point on the downhill slope of South Divide Road in the Cleveland National Forest. Same thing on the sandy Coyote Canyon trail in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. On these roads, I was driving under 25 miles per hour for extended periods, either on level ground or descending. The Mariner’s computer decided that power was adequate from the two electric motors and I agreed.

On the way back up South Grade Road, I pushed the accelerator a bit to see just what the Mariner could do. It was a spirited, bouncy and fun run back up the two miles to the top of the hill, gas and electric running in tandem all the way. Only once did the bottom scrape on a rock (sorry, Ford) and I managed to avoid flying off into a ravine.

In Anza-Borrego, there was enough loose sand in the roadway and adjacent parking area to give the part-time four-wheel-drive system a challenge, which it passed. The electric motors would wind up, then the gas engine would kick in, provide power, probably to all four wheels, and off we went. Just fine for a day in the back country.

And on the road, it was just as good. Freeway mileage to Lake Elsinore and back was in the high 20s; I use the cruise control as much as I can and the system had no problem keeping up with the traffic, which, as usual, was exceeding the speed limit.

On one of the county’s scariest twisting roads — Banner Grade east of Julian — the Mariner’s handling was predictable and sure. No sports car, but also more enjoyable than a mid- or full-sized SUV; the Mariner’s more compact size means it fits in the traffic lane with a bit of room to spare.
One note… I wasn’t using the air conditioning on either off-road trip. The a/c only runs with the gasoline engine, so it either shuts off when you’re running electric-only, or, if “Max A/C” is selected, the computer keeps the gas engine running no matter what.

My only negative was with the GPS navigation system. An old-style, CD-based system, it had trouble reading the CD. And with only one CD reader, it meant either tunes or turns — playing music or using the GPS. Old tech on a high-tech vehicle.

A neighbor’s had a two-wheel-drive ‘06 Escape hybrid for more than a year and was curious about the Mariner. With a budding family, she said they haven’t been sorry they jumped in and bought one of the first Escape hybrids last year.

With a combination of plenty of room and good mileage, the Mariner/Escape is a great choice for the SUV buyer. For someone looking tour nature with a minimum impact, it’s a must.

About the Car

  • Vehicle: 2007 Mercury Mariner Hybrid.
  • Reviewed: November 2006.
  • Time With Vehicle: One week.
  • Miles: About 2,000.
  • Vehicle supplied by Mercury for review.
  • Web Site link.
  • Two drives in the Mariner Hybrid:
    • Coyote Canyon
    • Ortega Mountains

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