Dig through any sales literature on the 2006 Mercury Milan and one point becomes glaringly obvious: Mercury wants its new sedan to stand out as upscale and valuable in one of the market's most aggressive and important segments. This only makes sense. After all, American carmakers have lacked a genuinely competitive midsize sedan for years.
Fortunately, thanks to expansive platform sharing within the Ford family, Mercury has a fundamental good start on its exit from midsize mediocrity. You see, underneath the Milan's pseudo-Italian styling, badges and marketing slant is a Ford Fusion. And underneath the Ford Fusion is a Mazda 6 — the car which sets the dynamic standard for the segment.
The base engine in Mercury's newest front-wheel-drive sedan is a 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder that makes 150 pound-feet of torque. It's backed by a five-speed manual or automatic transmission. But the Milan can be had with a double-overhead-cam 3.0-liter Duratec V6, which is also found in the Mazda 6. Mercury rates its output at 221 hp and 205 lb-ft of torque and matches it exclusively with a six-speed automatic.
Our V6 test car was a top-of-the-line Milan Premier, which comes standard with leather interior, a CD changer and 17-inch wheels and tires. Its base price of $23,495 makes it an undeniable competitor with the Japanese and puts it in the same ballpark as the Koreans in terms of features per dollar.
Although options including traction control, Mercury's eight-speaker Audiophile sound system, the safety and security package and the comfort package took its as-tested price up to $25,200, our test car represents a good value. The safety and security package, which adds front and second-row side curtain airbags and side airbags in the front seats for additional torso protection, is an exceptional buy at just $595 dollars.
Underneath, the Milan rides on a Mazda-designed double-wishbone suspension up front with a functionally similar multilink setup in the rear. The chassis, stretched and widened relative to the Mazda 6, has even greater torsional stiffness according to Mercury.
Its rack and pinion steering operates at a relatively quick 16-to-1 ratio (for comparison, Subaru's narrowly focused WRX STi uses an only marginally quicker 15.2-to-1 ratio). Braking is left to four-wheel discs (11.7 inches up front, 10.9 inches in the rear) with ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution.
Catch a glimpse of the Milan's hindquarters from across a parking lot and Mercury's styling does its job. There are some undeniable European — maybe even Italian — elements to its taillights, badging and rear-quarter panels. Trim all around is executed in a satin-aluminum finish which is more subtle and effective in defining the car's proportions than chrome. The 17-inch wheels have 14 spokes which match the trim and the entire treatment is brought together with Mercury's traditional "waterfall" grille.
Mercury matched the Milan's dimensions with its biggest midsize competitor, the Honda Accord. Its length, width, wheelbase and height are all within an inch of the Honda's, and its 15.8-cubic-foot trunk is marginally larger than the Accord's.
Inside, there's two-tone leather seating with stitching that matches the lighter hue. The front seats are as comfortable as they are good-looking. Though not as supportive laterally as we would like, we did find them agreeable on trips up to two hours. With slightly more front headroom and rear legroom than Accord, it's also spacious enough for five.
The satin-aluminum exterior trim is carried through to the dashboard and steering wheel spokes where it surrounds buttons controlling the audio, cruise and interior temperature. The on-dash heater and air-conditioning controls are all buttons which aren't as easy to use as knobs. Temperature and fan speed changes are made with buttons which require patience and redundancy of the hand. Otherwise, the system functions well enough — it even has a simple "off" button unlike many climate control systems.
Navigating the 3,300-pound Milan is a refreshing surprise. It's clear that dynamics and driver interaction were a priority in its design. Most impressive is the steering. Feedback through the wheel is striking as is weight which is unusually heavy for the class.
Responses to inputs are equally notable. Bend the Milan into a 180-degree on-ramp with some fervor and it doesn't surrender in a wail of tire squeal and body roll. Rather, the chassis responds with reasonable feedback from its all-season tires, eventually settling into understeer with manageable balance. The car consistently demonstrated willingness to corner and change directions at speed with enthusiasm.
Ride quality is acceptable especially considering the above-average handling. Expansion joints and high-speed undulations are well damped. We did notice some tramlining on California's rain-grooved freeways, but that's often as much a tire problem as a chassis problem.
Down the road
Since it's hard to criticize any midsize sedan with a V6 that sells for about $23,000, the Milan's powertrain is adequate at this price point. And no other midsize sedan in this range comes with a six-speed automatic. But the engine and transmission don't yield the yin and yang perfection we'd hoped for.
Power is sufficient and the transmission's shift schedule and segue between gears are without fault. However, we'd prefer more gear selection options on the shifter than just "D" (Drive) and "L" (Low). With six gears to choose from it would be nice to have a few more downshift choices. Even an automanual shifter that let us approximate gear selection would be an improvement.
As is, drivers wishing to downshift for engine braking are met with wildly inconsistent response. Drop from "D" to "L" on the freeway in an effort to stay off the brakes and sometimes you'll find a gear that will slow you the desired amount — sometimes you won't.
Although we never did figure out the six-speed's "L" mode logic, the transmission doesn't hunt or jump needlessly between gears. We were hard-pressed to confuse its determined shift methodology even while working the throttle like a monkey on meth.
Mercury also struck a perfect balance in calibrating the car's electronic throttle to work with the transmission. Response just off idle is linear and intuitive, and having six gears makes a difference in livability. The extra gear pays dividends during small changes in throttle position.
By the numbers
The Milan is right on track when it comes to acceleration. Through the quarter-mile it posted a 15.7-second run at 90 mph, hitting 60 in 7.9 seconds. That's 0.3 second quicker to 60 mph and the same quarter-mile time as a V6 Hyundai Sonata, which in LX trim costs exactly the same.
Handling is a Milan strongpoint. Even though its tires limit lateral acceleration to 0.81g on the skidpad, slalom speed is among the best in the segment. The Milan split the cones at 62 mph — better than the last Camry, Accord and Sonata we comparison-tested.
Brake feel doesn't inspire or insult. Step on the pedal, the car stops. Simple. It took the Milan 133.2 feet to stop from 60 mph — about average for its class. The last Honda Accord we tested stopped in 135 feet.
Add up the Milan's rewarding dynamics, sophisticated looks and below-average-with-a-V6 price and there's no denying that it is a serious contender among the midsize players. And if you squint a little, Mercury might even trick you into thinking it's Italian. Bravo.
Senior Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Forget about the whole "why does this car exist" issue and the Milan is a pretty solid package. It not only looks good inside and out, it has a completely different feel than most sedans in the class. Your average Honda Accord has been refined so much over the years it almost feels delicate. The Milan feels more substantial, with heavier steering that gives you a good sense of what's going on down below. It still has a ways to go when it comes to engine refinement, but at least there's plenty of power. The fact that stability control isn't offered is a little disappointing given that it's a standard feature on the Hyundai Sonata that competes in the same class.
As far as the interior goes, it has all the basic things I look for. A clean set of gauges, not too many buttons and comfortable seats. Some of the dashboard materials are a little questionable in their quality, but in this price range I almost expect that. It looked like there was plenty of room in the trunk for just about anything I would use it for and the backseats were as comfortable as anything else in the class.
It's a great package, sure, but so is the Ford Fusion for the same price. And it's a better-looking car inside and out. So now I'm back to where I started. Why does the Milan exist again?
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I think both the Ford Fusion and Mazda 6 are excellent cars and the Mercury Milan is no different. But unlike some shared-platform cars, I can actually see how one group of people would like the Milan but not the Fusion or vice versa. Sure, the Milan and Fusion are virtually identical mechanically but the Fusion's more angular look will likely appeal to more young men while the softer look of the Mercury will certainly have its fan base made up primarily of women and non-gearheads.
In my mind, the Milan sort of undoes Mercury mistakes past (think Mystique) by offering a near luxury car that's good-looking, affordable and fun to drive. The Milan is a car I'd be proud to own. And I may just be shallow enough to think that I'd get a little more pleasure out of saying "Mercury" rather than "Ford" when a friend asks what kind of car I'm driving. I'd bet there are more than a few freshmen realtors, salespeople and bank tellers who feel the same way.
The Milan is super-smooth on the highway and it's quiet around town. Acceleration isn't mind-blowing but it is more than adequate. Plus, the Milan is the best handling Mercury I've driven in a long time. It's got just enough of an edge to make you think it's a sport sedan — and maybe it is. My sole criticism with the car is that the radio and heating-A/C controls don't fit in with the car's otherwise classy interior.
System Score: 7.0
Components: The stereo in our test car was the upgraded Audiophile system. It includes eight speakers and an in-dash, six-disc CD changer. The Audiophile system costs an extra $420 and has features like speed-sensitive automatic volume control and three sound profiles. Those profiles optimize the sound presence for the driver, rear-seat passengers or all occupants.
Performance: The head unit is rather bland-looking for an upgraded audio system and it doesn't really fit with the Milan's upscale interior. However, the controls are fairly easy to use and most menu functions are simple and logical. The only problem is the confusing "seek" buttons that seem to indicate that they're used for switching CDs in the in-dash changer. Actually, there are other buttons that are farther away and point up and down that must be used to change CDs. Bass, treble and other such functions are accessed via a simple-to-use "menu" button. The steering wheel-mounted audio controls work well and offer a nice quality feel. Clicking each button has a precise but soft feel, almost like each switch has a felt stopper behind it. The redundant steering wheel controls integrate nicely with the head unit and the system is capable of playing MP3-format CDs.
The sound quality is fairly good. Still, the extra money spent on the "top-of-the-line" stereo doesn't translate into stellar sound quality. One of the main problems is that bass response isn't tight. However, unlike in the Ford Fusion and Ford Five Hundred, we found the Milan's stereo didn't require us to boost the bass and treble quite as much in order to get decent sound. But the bass still sounds muddy and rumbly rather than sharp. One of the keys to any good system is separation and this stereo does not have that. It certainly isn't an awful-sounding stereo but it could be so much better considering it's the top-of-the-line, extra-cost system.
Best Feature: Easy to use.
Worst Feature: Looks out of place when compared to the rest of the car's interior.
Conclusion: With so many automakers offering premium sound systems from JBL to Harmon Kardon, Ford's Audiophile system seems a little lacking. The sound quality is OK, but nothing more. — Brian Moody
"We chose the Milan after testing the Pontiac Grand Prix and G6, DCX 300, Chevrolet Impala, and the Ford 500. The Milan offered good looks, a quiet ride, great handling, a very nice interior and pretty good gas mileage. For the money, this is the best car (at least from the cars we test-drove) hands down. I would strongly recommend at least a test-drive before you settle on something else. — Deeeeetroit iron, October 31, 2005
"Very comfortable and well-made car. Plenty of room. With some reviews that I have seen, seems no matter what Detroit does, it isn't good enough. If this had a Toyota or Honda badge, media would have loved it. Way to go Ford/Mercury. Keep it up! Definitely a keeper. Mileage so far — mid 20s." — Rick Style, November 6, 2005
"Just picked up a new Milan last week. Drove around town and on five-hour weekend trip, and it didn't disappoint. Very comfortable seats, smooth quiet ride. Decent mileage (upper 20s) for driving 80-plus mph. Overall, the style of the Milan is very supple. From the aggressive front end to the two-toned interior, I feel as though I am in a slightly more elegant environment. It has some flaws such as an audiophile stereo w/out the resonance I would expect. The interior w/ sunroof is not built for a taller person as I have to adjust my seating (I'm 6'6"). The engine shifts very quickly from 1st thru 3rd gears. However, I am very satisfied with the car and hope the reliability holds up." — Baugie, October 25, 2005
"This car is unbelievable, its built quality is amazing and the way it handles in corners is better than the Accord. Had Toyotas before and besides being very durable and good quiet cars, they are boring. There is nothing boring about the Milan, and the sound system is great! Performance is awesome for a 3.0 and the six-speed is perfect." — Hated Ford!, October 20, 2005