Fuel-Efficient Compact Doesn't Quite Cut It in Snow

2009 Mercury Mariner Premier I-4
2009 Mercury Mariner Premier I-4 (Photo courtesy of Mercury )

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By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2008

CORNWALL, N.Y. -- Style points count for little here in the snow. The only vehicles that matter are those with four-wheel drive or, at least, all-wheel drive -- a system that automatically transfers drive power from slipping to gripping wheels.

Forget those "all-season" radial tires. They'll satisfy flatlanders who think snow flurries are blizzards. When winter comes roaring through the Hudson Highlands, the mountains on either side of the Hudson River that shape this place, all-season rubber turns next to useless.

Get proper snow tires. They're not the most attractive pieces of rubber you can put on a car or a truck. But they'll keep you moving around here.

Also, while it's good to be green, here in the winter, it's much better to have horsepower to crawl up treacherous hills towing loads or, maybe, to help pull a neighbor out of a ditch.

I write these things, dear readers, by way of confession. I have discovered the meaning of humility. It happens when ego is broadsided by truth. In my case, I got slapped upside the head.

Many of you are familiar with my wife, Mary Anne, and my Washington Post associate for vehicle evaluations, Ria Manglapus. In matters vehicular, they are queens of common sense. But I sometimes find it difficult to listen to them. I should have listened this time.

Before setting off for these parts from Northern Virginia, Ria warned me that I was taking the wrong vehicle -- this week's subject, the front-wheel-drive, 171-horsepower inline four-cylinder version of the 2009 Mercury Mariner Premier compact sport-utility.

"You've got to beg that little engine to accelerate," Ria said. "It moves under protest."

But I suspected that Ria had gone over to the dark side. I had seen it happening bit by bit, every time she got behind the wheel of a high-performance car. When she returned to something as normal as this week's test vehicle, she smirked, said it was "okay, I guess" and muttered something like it "doesn't move so fast."

But I was determined to see if the Mercury Premier with front-wheel drive and the four-cylinder engine actually could get 28 miles per gallon on the highway. That would be better than the comparably equipped Honda CR-V (23 mpg), Hyundai Santa Fe (24 mpg) and Toyota Rav-4 (24 mpg). That would be worth noting. Besides, this Mariner came with the voice-activated Microsoft Sync infotainment system and with one of the prettiest interiors -- leather and Alcantara-covered seats -- in anybody's SUV.

"I assume," said Mary Anne, "that this is a four-wheel-drive vehicle." She was speaking as we were boarding the Mariner Premier for our drive up here.

I told her we'd be fine. "We don't need four-wheel drive," I boasted. "That stuff's just a lot of marketing hype. This one has front-wheel drive and traction control. That's all we need."

Mary Anne's cell phone rang. It was our daughter, Binta, calling from her home here.

"Uh-huh," said Mary Anne. "There's snow and ice? Can we get up Mine Hill Road?" she asked, referring to a street leading to our daughter's home. And then there was this: "Dad says we don't need four-wheel drive. He says this one is more fuel-efficient." And there was particular nastiness in the way Mary Anne intoned "fueooll efffficient."

Dear readers, must I really tell you the rest of this story? We slipped. We slid. We wiggled our way up hills and sometimes got stuck. We crept along icy byways at slower than a snail's pace. On flat, high-speed stretches before we ran into the snow, we tried to accelerate, only for the Mariner Premier's little engine to buzz and hum and whine at high pitch.

Mary Anne could not allow that cacophony to escape without comment.

"This engine is so noisy, it could be a rock band," she said. "All we need are lyrics and a singer. We could have a hit!"

We did get 28 miles per gallon on the highway.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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