2005 Mercury Mariner

Nip, tuck, game, match

Ford's Mercury brand is a vital part of the company's sales figures. And unlike GM and Chrysler, Ford promises it's not going to shut the shrinking brand a la Oldsmobile orPlymouth. Instead, Ford is spending money to give Mercury new vehicles with a distinct style. The Mercury Mariner, a compact SUV, is one of the first of these new Mercurys engineered on the cheap, but styled to the nines, to arrive at dealers.

We say engineered on the cheap because, like most future Mercs, the Mariner is essentially another vehicle - in this case, it's a lightly reworked version of the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute that's remained a strong seller for both brands and competitive three years after it first bowed. Like the Escape and/or Tribute, it offers a choice of four- or six-cylinder engines, a four-speed automatic, an all-independent suspension, available all-wheel drive, and a common SUV body that's roomy in all seating positions and provides a large cargo area in back that's large enough for weekend errands, though the American litmus test of toting a 4x8 sheet of plywood is way outside its performance envelope.

Like the twins, the Mariner is a right-sized ute that's nimble around town and spacious enough for four adults. Ford improves the steering and suspension of the Escape a couple years ago, and the Mariner shares the newly refined setup. It also shares the powertrain's unappealing groans at high engine speeds, though its power is more than competitive for the class.

It's the exterior and interior styling that Ford hopes will differentiate the Mariner from its more generic siblings - and in fact the Mariner's styling, like the Explorer-based Mountaineer before it, is a markedly sleek upgrade. Overtly feminine, the Mariner has a vertical waterfall grille, bigger squared-off headlamps, and a metal-like bumper insert imprinted with the Mercury name. It's utterly handsome. The cockpit is even more so - lighter, brighter colors, softly illuminated gauges, and in our tester, a black-stained woodgrain and metallic touches all over the center console and instruments.

It's like riding in a sport-ute made over by the cast of Designing Women, but even macho men will appreciate the Mariner's upgraded seats front and back, the installation of a Personal Safety System that includes side-impact airbags and curtain airbags as well, and anti-lock brakes. All Mariners come with a CD player, air conditioning and power conveniences, making even the least expensive versions a quiet, luxuriant SUV choice.

Ford expects the Mariner to be priced in the low $20,000 range, about where the mid-level Escape kicks in. And in two years, the Mariner will add the new hybrid powertrain available now in the Escape, lending 35-mpg credentials to the softer side of Ford. Whether the styling campaign at Mercury succeeds in reviving it won't be known for a while, but Ford can be applauded for the striking differences achieved with just a few cosmetic changes.

2005 Mercury Mariner

Base price: $21,405

Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 200 hp/193 lb-ft

Transmission: Four-speed automatic, all-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 174.3 x 70.1 x 67.9 inches

Wheelbase: 103.1 inches

Curb weight: 3520 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/23 mpg

Safety equipment: Dual front airbags; anti-lock brakes

Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player; power door locks/windows/mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles