Named the Mercury Mariner, this compact SUV shares its platform and powertrain with the popular Ford Escape, with only a few cosmetic exceptions. The Mariner is for people who want more than a run-of-the-mill fully loaded Escape, but can't afford to make the jump into the larger and much more expensive Lincoln Aviator. The result is a well-appointed and stylish compact SUV that practically anyone can afford. That's not a bad formula for success.

Mariners will be offered with two engine options: the Duratec 23 all-aluminum four-cylinder (rated at 153 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 152 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm), and the Duratec 30 all-aluminum V-6 (200 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 193 pound-feet of torque at 4850 rpm). Both are paired with a four-speed automatic, and, like the Escape, Mariners can be ordered in front- or all-wheel-drive configurations. No changes have been made to the suspension or chassis to give the Mariner a different ride or handling feel. We understand the cost-savings angle, but it would've been more appropriate to have the differences between the two vehicles be more than just decorative. We assume the next Mariner will include more significant changes.

We're told the Mercury satin-finish front grille, unique headlamps and foglights, and brand name splashed across the front bumper will begin to work its way across other models as five more Mercury vehicles make their debut in the next four years. Other Mercury-only accents include European-type turn signals, two aluminum wheel choices, and taillight-lens protectors. However, the biggest differentiation between the Mariner and Escape comes in the form of more luxurious fabric and leather choices for the interiors. According to the manufacturer, the seat-foam density is specifically designed for the Mercury buyer (presumably for more discriminating butts). Other interior details that further separate the Mariner from its peers include the chrome, brushed-aluminum, and wood-grain highlights that give the gauges, center stack, and dash a markedly up-level feel and look.

Cargo flexibility is nothing special--66 cubic feet of cargo area with the rear seats folded flat. Overall driving dynamics are sound, but also nothing special. We like the steady and predictable feel of the steering, but wouldn't mind if Mercury tightened it up for better responsiveness.

Next year, expect the Mariner to get the same hybrid drive system now offered in the Escape Hybrid. Thankfully, the Mariner won't cost much more than its Ford counterpart, starting around $22,000 for the four-cylinder, going up to $28,000 fully optioned.