Our view: 2010 Mercury Milan Hybrid

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Senior Editor Mike Hanley is a father of three boys; he reviews new cars, admires classic cars and has embraced the minivan lifestyle. Email Mike Hanley

Have you noticed how the debate concerning greenhouse gases and global warming has mostly been shelved in the mainstream media since the collapse of the economy? It’s understandable that people are more focused on keeping their homes and jobs in times like these, but conservation still deserves some attention. It’s at least getting it from automakers, many of which are still focused on creating cars with lower carbon emissions. One of the latest examples is the 2010 Mercury Milan Hybrid.

Just like the Toyota Camry Hybrid that debuted a few years ago, the Milan Hybrid is a hybrid for the rest of us, in that it looks like a regular midsize family sedan. When taken as a whole, the Milan Hybrid — along with its sibling the Ford Fusion Hybrid — ranks as the one to beat in this class. It improves on the Camry Hybrid’s formula by offering better gas mileage, with an EPA-estimated 41/36 mpg city/highway, and unlike the Camry Hybrid it’s still eligible for a federal tax credit. Mainstream looks notwithstanding, the Milan Hybrid incorporates technology to help you drive more efficiently, which is sure to appeal to owners bent on maximizing their mileage. Perhaps the only thing that might not jell with buyers is this sedan’s notably firm ride.

Efficient Performance
Even with the increased level of accuracy in EPA gas mileage estimates these days, I wanted to see what kind of mileage the Milan Hybrid could achieve in the real world. I took it on a familiar test loop of about 30 miles of suburban and city driving, with some highway mileage, too. The roads are mostly flat, and the outside temperature was in the low 50s (the car’s ventilation system was set at 70 degrees). At the end of the drive, I did the math and determined I had averaged 41 mpg. Pretty good, especially considering I wasn’t employing any tricks to raise my fuel economy; I just drove the Milan Hybrid as I would any other test car. Of course, I got 52 mpg in a 2008 Toyota Prius on the same loop awhile back.

Hybrid Sedans Compared
MPG, City/Highway Class Base Price
2009 Honda Civic Hybrid 40/45 Compact $23,650
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid 41/36 Midsize $27,270
2010 Mercury Milan Hybrid 41/36 Midsize $30,575*
2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid 33/34 Midsize $26,150
2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid 26/34 Midsize $25,555
2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid 35/33 Midsize $26,650
*Price includes $3,075 “option” package, which all models have.

The gas/electric drivetrain responsible for the Milan’s thrifty performance consists of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor that combine to make 191 horsepower. Power is fed to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission. The drivetrain offers entirely acceptable acceleration but, not surprisingly, it isn’t as robust as the large V-6 engines available in family sedans today. Gentle acceleration from a stoplight can be easily accomplished in the hybrid’s electric-vehicle mode, and the gas engine automatically and smoothly engages when more power is needed; your main clue that the four-cylinder has come to life is its droning engine sound. It’s not hard to return to EV mode when cruising at midrange speeds, either. When driving in rush-hour traffic, for instance, the Milan Hybrid transitioned back to electric power when I was cruising at a steady 35 mph. Mercury says the Milan can run on electricity alone all the way up to 47 mph.

In some hybrids, including Ford’s Escape Hybrid, the gas engine usually springs to life when the air conditioning is on, but that’s not the case in the Milan Hybrid; I spent some time driving with the air conditioning running, and the Milan still regularly went into EV mode. The sedan could also drive slowly uphill on just electricity.

I did notice one annoying trait: While cruising steadily at around 65 mph, the car would occasionally surge to maintain its speed; with my foot steady on the gas pedal, I could feel the car slow slightly, then accelerate. It’s the first time I’ve experienced this sensation in a hybrid. Perhaps my foot wasn’t as steady as I thought, because the sensation disappeared when I turned on cruise control, but either way you shouldn’t have to use cruise control to avoid this kind of behavior. Most cars have no trouble keeping a steady speed with nothing more than your right foot controlling the gas pedal.

Both the steering and braking systems factor into the hybrid equation. The Milan Hybrid has an electrically assisted power-steering system, a design that’s increasingly being used to reduce load on engines in gas-only cars, but one that’s essential in a hybrid, where the engine starts and stops during normal operation. (If the old hydraulic approach were used, the power steering would die along with the engine.) The steering wheel has a moderate weight and elicits fairly quick response. Steering feedback is minimal, but that’s typical of family sedans.

Like other hybrids, the Milan Hybrid has a regenerative braking system that turns the car’s motion into electricity, which is then stored in the car’s high-voltage battery pack for later use. This is accomplished by using the car’s electric motor as a generator when the sedan is slowing down. One problem regenerative braking systems have had in some hybrids is that they’ve delivered uneven pedal feel, as the cars blended the regenerative function with traditional friction brakes. Though the Milan Hybrid’s braking system isn’t equal to a good hydraulic system — the type that’s found in most conventional cars — it’s linear for a hybrid’s. The only real downside is that the brake pedal has some springiness to it.

Ride & Handling
One of the more surprising qualities of the Milan Hybrid is its stiff suspension tuning. Whether you pass over a small crack in the pavement or a large bump, the Milan lets you know about it. With Mercury serving as Ford’s premium brand (between mass-market Ford and luxury Lincoln), I would have expected greater isolation from the road — something like the comfortable ride in the Mercury Sable full-size sedan.

The upside is that it does a good job controlling unwanted body roll; the car remains flat when accelerating through a corner. The suspension also settles the car quickly when you travel over a dip or rise in the road.

Though the suspension doesn’t offer much isolation from the road, Mercury has done a fine job isolating the cabin from bothersome noise. The car’s quiet nature can be partially attributed to the fact that its engine isn’t always on when driving, but wind and ambient noise are minimal, too.

The Cabin: Hits and Misses
The Milan Hybrid has a conservatively styled cabin that looks attractive but doesn’t raise the design bar for family sedans. The dashboard includes a soft-to-the-touch rubbery upper dash, a hard-plastic lower dash, and silver and matte black accents. The black trim has subtle graining that adds a little visual interest. Unfortunately, the shape of the trim panels where they meet gives the impression that the gaps between them — which are mostly tight — are larger than they really are. I also think Ford needs to update its turn-signal sound; the “tick tock, tick tock” is a little kitschy.

My test model had woven fabric upholstery made from recycled materials, but it was an early model; the ones you’ll be able to drive and buy at dealerships will have standard leather. (If you’d rather have fabric seats, they’re available in the Ford Fusion Hybrid.) The front bucket seats have a fair amount of side bolstering and good thigh support thanks to their long bottom cushions — very comfortable overall.

Some of the Milan’s competitors, like the Honda Accord and Mazda6, grew in size with their recent redesigns. The benefits are obvious: larger cabins and bigger trunks. The Milan, by comparison, is a little smaller on the outside for 2010, though its cabin volume is similar to the outgoing model. Even though it’s less roomy than the Accord and Mazda6, it still offers good backseat space. Taller passengers might find themselves pushing the limits of its headroom, but legroom and foot space under the front seats are good. The backrest is set at a relaxed angle.

The Milan Hybrid loses some of the utility offered by the gas-only Milan. Gone is the split-folding backseat that expands the trunk area so you can carry longer items inside the car. The hybrid’s trunk is smaller, too, because of the high-voltage battery pack behind the backseat. Cargo volume measures 11.8 cubic feet, which is 4.7 cubic feet smaller than the regular Milan’s trunk.

High-Tech Displays
The feature most likely to grab attention is the Milan Hybrid’s instrument panel. Dubbed SmartGauge with EcoGuide, it consists of a traditional analog speedometer flanked by LCD screens. The screens have crisp graphics and vivid colors, and may foreshadow what gauges will look like in regular cars someday.

The screens can be configured to show basic information like fuel level and battery charge, or more details about the hybrid system, including how much electricity the air conditioning, radio and other accessories are drawing, as well as a bar graph showing the car’s gas mileage in the past hour. More important, the screens have a readout that can help drivers stay in EV mode longer and thus get better gas mileage — a rarity among hybrids. It looks a little bit like a thermometer, and as long as you accelerate gently enough to keep the level below a marked line, the gas engine will stay off longer.

The hybrid’s optional navigation system is more familiar, but it’s been enhanced. Its large 8-inch screen completely takes over the middle of the dash, but its size allows the touch-screen’s buttons and labels to be larger and easier to read. The same interface is used in the Escape Hybrid, but that SUV has a smaller screen that makes for text that’s too small. Incorporated into the navigation system is Sirius Travel Link, which can show weather and traffic information, sports scores, movie listings and local gas prices.

Milan Hybrid in the Market
The Milan Hybrid and the related Ford Fusion Hybrid — which is eligible for the same tax credit but costs less thanks to its fewer standard features — deliver the kind of gas mileage, driving experience and technology that should make them appealing to both hybrid fans and consumers just looking for a sensible family car. There are a few other hybrids out there that get better mileage, like the Toyota Prius, but if you want a midsize sedan that has room for the family, the Milan and Fusion hybrids deserve a serious look.

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