Joining the competition: Mercury Milan is new competitor in hot midsize segment

Friday, November 18, 2005

There's a lot of buzz in automotive circles about how Ford Motor Company is getting back into the car business after a long absence. That's an exaggeration, of course, because Ford never quit building cars -- it concentrated on trucks and SUVs for the past decade while the competition, mostly from Japan, took the heart out of the car market. While the top selling vehicle in the U.S. for years has been the Ford F-150, the top selling sedans have been the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

Ford intends to change that, and has introduced a half-dozen new sedans in the past year under its Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brand names. The latest one is the Mercury Milan, a midsize that I took on a 100-mile test drive. The Milan slots between the Ford Fusion and the Lincoln Zephyr, and all are based upon a stretched front-wheel-drive Mazda6 platform. It appears that Ford scored a bull's-eye with these new models. In a recent "Car and Driver" magazine showdown between the Fusion, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Honda Accord, the Fusion scored second place, behind the Honda, while outscoring the Honda in several key areas, such as price, rear seat comfort, gas mileage, road holding, and engine flexibility. It tied the Honda in the styling department and in the very important handling category.

I tested a top-of-the-line Milan Premier V-6, with a sticker price of $22,845, plus $650 destination charge. There were absolutely no extra-cost options on the vehicle, but it was very well equipped. Ford has taken a new approach with its vehicles, meeting the competition head-on with stylish, well-equipped vehicles and attractive prices to match.

The Milan faces an uphill battle -- the popular-priced midsize-sedan segment is extremely competitive. So why choose a Milan? One reason is that it's a lot of car for the money. Another is that it is a great-looking automobile that provides a high level of comfort and convenience. The Milan replaces the Sable as the entry-level Mercury since the Mystique went out of production six years ago. Just as the Ford Fusion and Five Hundred are replacing the Taurus, the Milan and the new Montego replace the Sable.

The Milan comes in two flavors: the base version, which has a standard 2.3-liter, 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission, and the Premier, which has Ford's 3.0-liter, 221-horsepower Duratec V-6, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The base Milan can also be ordered with an optional five-speed automatic transmission. The car measures 191.4 inches long and 72.2 inches wide, making it just a bit longer and a little wider than an Accord or Camry. Room inside is generous and trunk space is impressive. The leather-trimmed seats in my test car were handsome and comfortable, and the roomy rear 60/40 seats fold down to carry long objects that won't fit in the trunk. The rear doors have been enlarged and moved rearward for ease of entry.

The Milan is loaded with features that we have come to expect on luxury cars, such as lighted vanity mirrors for the driver and the front-seat passenger, damped ceiling-mounted hand grips for passengers as well as the driver, telescoping and tilting steering wheel, and the usual power-operated windows, locks and mirrors. The driver gets a six-way powered seat, but the passenger's seat was manual -- a glaring omission in my opinion. The steering wheel has standard audio and speed controls, and the instrument cluster includes an electronic message center than can advise you if a door isn't fully closed, or tell you how many miles until the next fill-up plus your instant and average fuel mileage.

Milan's innovative storage solutions include a dash-top storage bin and two-tiered storage in the center console. There were six cup holders scattered throughout the stylish cabin, which has automatic temperature control.

The Milan has the same turn signal/high beam stalk that I complained about on the Fusion -- it sticks up at an odd angle on the left side of the steering wheel. But I have to admit that after a hundred miles behind the wheel I've grown to like it. We're supposed to drive with our hands at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions on the steering wheel, and the turn signal stalk is just a finger flick away. Plus, you can see the markings on the stalk -- they're not hidden behind the steering wheel.

The V-6 engine and 6-speed automatic transmission rockets the Milan to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds while providing 21-mpg/ city and 29-mpg/highway. I got 26-mpg during my 100-mile test drive and enjoyed the Milan's quiet, comfortable ride. All-wheel-drive is promised for next year.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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