Milan has European styling, creative marketing

Friday, April 28, 2006

The 2006 Mercury Milan, Mercury's first new midsize sedan in more than a decade, sure is a fashionable go-getter.

It popped up at trendy hair salons around the country, where surprised customers received free haircuts, courtesy of Milan marketers. With European styling cues, it even made an appearance on a New York fashion show catwalk.

Mercury officials hope the creative marketing helps the Milan break through today's advertising clutter and attract new and younger buyers to the brand, whose annual U.S. sales have steadily declined this decade to less than 200,000.

Though it's difficult to tell just from pictures, the four-door Milan is arguably the best-looking Mercury auto in a long while.

It's nicely sized to be not too big and not too small, with seats for five and a 15.8-cubic-foot trunk that's larger than many competitors'.

The car rides and handles with some firmness and sportiness, which isn't expected in a Mercury.

And with four- and six-cylinder engines, the Milan offers buyers both fuel economy and decent performance.

The starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $18,995 positions the Milan just above the Ford Fusion sedan and quite a bit below another sister car, the 2006 Lincoln Zephyr.

The three vehicles are platform siblings at Ford Motor Co. -- all using a modified version of the Mazda6 front-wheel-drive architecture and sharing the same engines and transmissions.

The Milan joins the Mercury Montego in the midsize sedan segment, where Mercury formerly sold the long-running Sable.

There are two trim levels of Milan. Both the base trim and Premier are offered with choice of four- or six-cylinder engine.

Only the four cylinder, however, is available with a manual transmission. All Milans with V-6 have a six-speed automatic.

The test car, the top-of-the-line Premier with V-6, topped out at more than $25,000 and had leather-trimmed seats, automatic transmission, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, stylish, 17-inch, multi-spoke wheels and optional upgraded audio system and side and curtain airbags.

Passengers sink into the seats of the Milan but don't feel as if they're sitting too low to the ground. Seats are comfortable and supportive without being overly firm or overly bolstered.

Controls and gauges are easy to understand and the interior overall is pleasant and straightforward.

With an overall length and height about on par with a Honda Accord sedan, the Milan's front- and rear-seat legroom of 42.3 and 37 inches, respectively, is close to the 42.6 and 36.8 inches, respectively, of the Accord.

But because of the Milan's shape, front and rear headroom is about an inch less than that of the Accord's.

All Milans come with split 60/40 rear seatbacks that fold down to accommodate long items that need to extend from the trunk. But the seatbacks don't fold down far enough to rest completely flat.

Anyone who recalls the conservative handling of old Mercury cars will be surprised at the Milan's well-managed, more sporty kind of ride. This is a Mercury that feels more buttoned-down and connected to the pavement than cars of the past.

The 221-horsepower, 3-liter, double overhead cam V-6 in the test car delivered power smoothly through the six-speed automatic.

Most of the time, I didn't notice shift points as I drove, and peak torque of 205 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm was more than adequate to merge the Milan into traffic without hesitation and move the car along in sprightly fashion.

I readily heard the engine on acceleration, and it had a strong, confident sound. There also was some wind noise that came through at highway speeds.

Fuel economy in the V-6 is a combined 25 miles a gallon, which is a bit better than the Accord with V-6.

Still, the base four cylinder in the Accord gets better fuel economy ratings than the Milan's base, 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter four cylinder, which is rated at 23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

In government crash testing, the new Milan received five out of five stars in only one category -- front-seat passenger protection in a side crash when the car is fitted with optional side and curtain airbags. It earned four out of five stars in other crash protection categories, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ford officials have said the Milan will be sold as a gasoline-electric hybrid car by 2008.

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