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Welcome to the first installment of “Speed Read”. In this feature, various S:S:L editors will be offering quick opinions on the vehicles which come through our press fleet. As always, we’re interested in your opinions… do you want these features to be longer? Shorter? More car-jumping? Let us know!

Price: $33,560
Major equipment: 230-horsepower 3.0 Duratec V6, six-speed automatic, Sync 2.0 with navigation, “VOGA” trim package

In the fleet: 11/19/2008 – 11/26/2008

Approximate mileage: 560

J. BARUTH: This has to be the most girly SUV I’ve ever driven, and while it made me a touch nervous to drive a chrome-wheeled white trucklet with “Cashmere White” leather interior, I think it’s a home run of an idea. Sure, it’s almost thirty-four grand, but it provides 95% of the experience you get from a fully-equipped Lexus RX for considerably less. I’d put it head-to-head against an Acura RDX, a comparison it would probably win. Same size, more usable power, an arguably more upscale interior, outstanding technology integration from Sync.

Ford picked the right time to update the Mariner and Escape. More and more people are considering more efficient, slightly smaller unibody SUVs as an alternative to their current two-ton-plus trucks, and it’s easy to envision current Mountaineer customers taking a look at the Mariner. What they’ll find is a wagon which, really, beats the Mountaineer and similar body-on-frame vehicles in most categories. It’s quiet enough, there’s nearly as much usable space for five people as there is in the Mountaineer, and fuel economy is considerably better. We saw about 24mpg in a mix of city and winter freeway driving, and that’s coupled with some strong 0-60 thrust. There are two drawbacks, though. There’s no third row of seats, and you can’t tow very much. If those two parts of the SUV experience don’t matter, then the Mariner might be right for you.

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The interior’s decent, complete with piano-black trim and blue/white instruments.

The “VOGA” edition is presumably designed to appeal to style-conscious suburban women. With a pale-white leather interior, piano-black trim, and cool blue interior lighting, it’s certainly not going to be anybody’s first choice to run the Rubicon Trail. And while the Mariner’s never been an off-road hero, we found it pretty easy to manage an aggressive pace down a snow-covered gravel trail or two. The sound system is simply staggering; Mercury’s “Audiophile” system is punchy and offers a solid sense of aural space. The navigation/function screen, which in the past has been a bit of a sore spot for Ford loyalists, has been revamped. It’s still impossible to use the screen to enter a new destination on the fly, but thanks to Sync you can talk your way to a new waypoint without having to pull over.

The elephant in the room here is the sticker price. This mini-SUV isn’t cheap. Twelve years ago, when your humble author was an equally humble salesman for a small-town Ford dealership, thirty-three grand would buy an Explorer Limited. Today it buys a Mariner Premium. But here’s the funny part: this truck is faster, more spacious, more enjoyable to drive, nicer inside, and better-equipped than a 1996 Explorer Limited, to say nothing of the nine-mile-per-gallon fuel-economy advantage. So that’s progress for you. The actual street price for the Mariner VOGA is likely to be in the $29,000 range, and for that price you get a lot of content.

It’s not exactly my idea of the perfect SUV. It doesn’t tow, it has an interior virtually guaranteed to show every fingerprint, and it has chrome wheels. It will, however, be the right choice for a lot of people, and if most of those people are “yummy mummies”… well, those people buy SUVs too.

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Sync 2.0 + Apple’s “Garage Band” + a free afternoon = a chance to torture your friends with home-recorded music!

The tactic of gradually taking vehicles upmarket is one more associated with Japanese manufacturers — remember the $42,000 Mazda RX-7? — than with our domestic brands, but the Mariner is well-positioned for such a move up. It’s no longer considered ridiculous to pay this kind of money for an SUV of this size, as demonstrated by the RDX, GLK, upcoming Q5, X3, and all sorts of other alphabet-soup wagons. Against the competition, the Mariner doesn’t flinch, offering more content for slightly less money. Mercury, as a brand, is currently desperately seeking an identity. This type of product isn’t a bad place to start.

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Jack Baruth

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