Ford's latest crossover SUV hybrid, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, has little to distinguish it from the Escape. So is the higher sticker price worth it? By Mark Solheim, Editor January 13, 2006 When the Ford Escape Hybrid debuted a little more than a year ago, the company could confidently tout it as "the world's first hybrid SUV." It appealed to the environmentally conscious, techno-savvy crowd who liked the small crossover SUV not just for commuting but also for hauling stuff and weekend jaunts to the wilderness.Now Ford Motor Co. has introduced another small crossover SUV hybrid, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid. Except it's not really new, considering it's a rebadged, slightly more upscale version of the Escape, distinguished only by a few exterior accents and a slightly nicer interior. Mariner vs. Escape Under the hood, the Mariner is identical to the Escape. Both operate with a 2.3-liter gasoline engine and electric motor that, together, deliver 155 horsepower. On paper, that's similar to the four-cylinder gas engine models, but acceleration in the Hybrid is nearly as quick as in the V6. The electric motor takes over when you're idling and driving at slow speeds, boosting city fuel economy to as much as 33 mpg for the all-wheel-drive model. Highway mileage is pegged at 29 mpg. Advertisement Unlike the Escape, which comes in two- or four-wheel drive, the Mariner is available only as a four-wheel drive model. Inside, chrome and woodgrain accents offer a refined ambiance. The Mariner Hybrid has a base price of $29,840, including destination charge. The all-wheel-drive Escape Hybrid starts at $29,140. Standard equipment is nearly identical -- the Mariner has a couple of minor extras, like lighted vanity mirrors -- and option packages are pretty much the same. So the decision comes down to whether the look of the Mariner is worth an extra $700. Ford plans to make only 2,000 Mariner Hybrids in 2006, so limited availability could also sway the decision. Mercury is taking orders at marinerhybrid.com. You pick options and color, and a personal sales consultant follows up and, if you choose, puts you in touch with a dealer. If four-wheel drive isn't important to you, you can save money and increase fuel economy with the Ford Escape Hybrid two-wheel-drive model. It starts at $27,515 and is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 36 mpg highway and 31 city. You'll find more Escape Hybrids at dealers, too. Advertisement You could break even You pay a premium for going green, and in the past you were unlikely to recoup the extra cost with savings at the gas pump. But with a new tax break for 2006, it's easier to justify higher price of a hybrid. If you buy a hybrid this year, you may qualify for a dollar-for-dollar reduction of your taxes. The size of the credit depends on the model, its city fuel economy and how much that's improved over previous models. For the Mariner and Ford Escape 4WD hybrids, the credit is $1,950. For the Escape 2WD Hybrid, it's $2,600. (Note that the credit can't reduce the alternative minimum tax, if that applies to you.) For more information, see HybridCars.com. For example, compare the Mariner Hybrid with the mid-level Mariner Luxury trim 4WD, which are comparably equipped. You pay about a $4,200 premium for the hybrid, but that's reduced to $2,250 after the tax credit. Annual fuel savings is about $450, assuming 15,000 miles a year with gas at $2.24 a gallon. Bottom line: You could break even after five years. You'll do even better if gas prices rise. With the Escape 2WD Hybrid, the premium disappears after the tax credit and you can immediately enjoy the $500 annual gas savings. Advertisement One caveat: The nonhybrid models are likely to have incentives (for example, there is a $1,500 cash rebate in January), and dealers are likely to be receptive to haggling. That changes the break-even equation. Still, don't ignore the fact that even if you don't come out ahead financially with the hybrid, you're producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions -- an advantage that's worth a lot, in my view.