The all-new Mercury Milan midsize sedan has arrived for 2006.
It's a modern, stylish, affordable four-door model that is one of two cars Mercury has introduced to take the place of the discontinued Sable in the brand's lineup (the other is the Montego, introduced last year).
The Milan, though, along with its Ford counterpart, the Fusion, probably give the nation's No. 2 automaker its best chance to take on the segment-leading Toyota Camry and Honda Accord since the Sable and its Ford twin, the Taurus, fell from favor with consumers in the mid-90s.
The Camry and Accord have held the top two spots in the midsize segment for the past eight years.
Built on the same architecture as the Mazda6 sport sedan, the Milan is billed as being "softer" and more-affordable than its competitors, with a starting price of $18,995 (including freight) for the entry-level four-cylinder model, and $21,995 for the V-6 version.
Our test vehicle was the V-6 "Premier" model, with a base price of $23,495 (with freight).
These prices are thousands less than some Camry and Accord models, and close to those of South Korean competitors such as the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima.
There is also a Lincoln version of this vehicle, called the Zephyr. It begins at $30,000 and comes with lots of standard amenities that either cost extra or aren't available on the Milan. It's offered only with the same V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission used in the uplevel versions of the Milan and the Fusion. I've driven only the Milan and Fusion, and found both of them quite unlike the rather boring Sable and Taurus sedans they replace.
Like their Mazda6 first cousin, these cars are more like sport sedans than your average midsize Camry or Accord.
The Milan's exterior styling breaks the boring mold of the Sable and even the Camry and Accord, giving us a rather beautiful car that attracts attention even though it is just a four-door family sedan. It has design cues that clearly differentiate it from the Fusion, including Mercury's signature "waterfall" grille.
Inside, the car looks more expensive than it is. Materials and workmanship are a cut above what we've seen in such cars as the Sable and Taurus.
The Milan seats five adults quite comfortably, with decent leg room even in the rear seat.
And the trunk is among the largest in the class, with 15.8 cubic feet of space. The Accord's trunk is just 14 cubic feet, but the Camry's is 16.7.
For those who want the lowest price and best fuel economy, the base 3-liter Duratec inline four-cylinder engine is the best choice.
It cranks out 160 horsepower and 160 foot-pounds of torque, which is on par with the four-cylinder versions of the Camry and Accord, as well as the Pontiac G6, the closest competitor in the General Motors lineup.
Four-cylinder models come with a five-speed manual transmission, but most consumers will choose the available five-speed automatic ($825).
EPA ratings for this version are 23 miles per gallon city and 31 mpg on the highway. The four-cylinder Milan has plenty of zip for a car this size and weight (beginning at about 3,100 pounds).
But most consumers looking in Mercury showrooms would probably choose the V-6, because Mercury is considered an upscale brand. Consumers shopping in Mercury showrooms probably would be looking for a vehicle with a higher level of equipment than they would find in a Ford store.
Whether you could justify the extra $3,000 it takes to step up to the V-6 model depends on your budget, but there isn't a big drop in fuel economy with the V-6 from the four-cylinder. EPA ratings are 21 city/29 highway.
The V-6 is a 3.0-liter Duratec that puts out 221 horsepower and 205 foot-pounds of torque, which puts it just above the base Camry V-6 engine, but below the power of the Accord.
For some reason, though, the Milan seems more powerful than the Accord.
The V-6 can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in just eight seconds, and also has better fuel economy and one more gear in the automatic transmission than the Camry.
The Milan's roadhandling, especially in tight turns, is a cut above that of the Accord and Camry.
The Milan is offered in four trim levels -- the base four-cylinder, called just the Milan, and the well-equipped four-cylinder Milan Premier; and the base Milan V-6, and our test car, the top-of-the-line V-6 Premier.
Surprisingly, you can get a well-equipped four-cylinder base Milan for about $20,000 (before dealer discounts and manufacturer incentives, including a $500 rebate now in effect).
Included on the base four- or six-cylinder model are such standard features as a premium audio system with single-dsic CD/MP3 player; analog clock; overhead console with sunglasses holder; covered flip-up storage bin on top of the dash; six-way power driver's seat with manual lumbar adjustment; 16-inch wheels; air conditioning; cruise control; tilt and telescoping steering wheel with secondary controls; and power door locks with remote keyless entry.
Options include a "Safety and Security" package ($595, included on our test car) with side-impact air curtains, side-impact air bags and a perimeter anti-theft system; antilock brakes; power moonroof; premium AM/FM/six-disc CD/MP3 player with six speakers; and an even better Audiophile AM/FM six-disc CD/MP3 player with eight speakers (a $420 upgrade that was included on our test car).
Moving up to the Premier model automatically brings the midlevel audio system, leather seats, antilock brakes, and 17-inch machined-aluminum wheels.
An optional "Comfort" package ($595, included on our car) adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel with secondary audio, speed and climate controls; automatic climate control; automatic headlights, fog lights, puddle lamps, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass.
Also offered on the Premier model are traction control ($95, included on our car), as well as heated seats and Wales Mahogany interior trim.
With the extras, out test car's sticker totaled $25,200 (including freight), about $3,000 less than a comparably equipped Camry or Accord.
Ford says that the Milan is for consumers who "don't want something they will also see in their neighbor's driveway," but who also "don't want a car that's brash or showy. They want premium features, but without the luxury price tag."
With that in mind, this car actually is more like a Lexus ES 330 or IS 300 in comfort, performance and equipment, but with a price tag that is at least $7,000 less.
Keep in mind that the Milan is essentially a Mazda design, and Mazda is known for making cars that have more of an edge than the average Japanese appliance cars.
Mercury says the Milan is the fifth of six new products promised for the brand over four years.
A new crossover SUV will be next to arrive, based on the Mazda6/Milan/Fusion/Zephyr chassis. It's due out in about two years.
All of the 2006 Milan models come with front-wheel drive, but next year Ford will add an all-wheel-drive option to the Milan and the Zephyr.
These three cars -- the Milan, Fusion and Zephyr -- are built at Ford's plant in Hermosillo, Mexico. The Mazda6 comes from the Mazda-Ford factory in Flat Rock, Mich., which also built the Mazda6's predecessor, the 626 sedan.
Ford says it will develop gasoline-electric hybrid versions of the Fusion and Milan to arrive in late 2008.
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G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; email@example.com.
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At a Glance: 2006 Mercury Milan
The package: Midsize, four-door, five-passenger, front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder or V-6 powered sedan.
Highlights: All new for 2006, this is the Mercury version of the new midsize Ford Fusion, and is derived from the architecture of the Mazda6 sport sedan. The Milan, which replaces the Sable, offers edgy styling, sporty handling, a comfortable interior, and a host of standard and optional features, with affordable prices and decent fuel economy.
Negatives: No second V-6 engine upgrade available for sportier performance.
Engine: 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder; 3.0-liter V-6
Transmission: Five-speed manual standard on four-cylinder models, with a five-speed automatic optional; six-speed automatic on V-6 models.
Power/torque: 160 hp./150 foot-pounds (I-4); 221 hp./205 foot-pounds (V-6)
Length: 190.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,117-3,303 pounds
Trunk capacity: 15.8 cubic feet
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock optional
Fuel capacity/type: 18.0 gallons/unleaded regular
EPA fuel economy: 23 miles per gallon city/31 highway (I-4); 21 city/29 highway (V-6)
Major competitors: Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Mazda 6, Pontiac G6, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Nissan Maxima, Mitsubishi Galant
Base prices: $18,995 (four-cylinder, with freight); $21,995 (V-6, with freight)
Price as tested: $25,200 (V-6 Premier, with freight and options)
On the Road rating: ***** (five stars out of five)
Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail. Actual selling price may vary according to manufacturer and/or dealer rebates, incentives and discounts, if any.
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