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2006 Mercury Milan: A Glimpse Of The Future Of Family Sedans

We’ve been waiting for it a long time–certainly much longer than since last year’s “Year of the Car” as proclaimed by Ford. We didn’t get it with the 203-horsepower Five Hundred sedan (nor it’s upscale Montego twin). We certainly didn’t get it when the Taurus hit some nine years without a significant redesign. And boy, we sure missed it when we were watching all-new Explorers and Mustangs coming off the lines. But we might just have it now–Ford Motor Corp. might have finally given America a decent midsize sedan.

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“Fusion” is its name–just as all the SUVs begin with ‘E,’ all new FoMoCo sedans will bear ‘F’ monikers from now on. And while we caught a glimpse in New York earlier this year, we still actually haven’t gotten a chance to drive the thing. Fortunately, though, our friends at Mercury were able to get us some seat time in the Milan–essentially the same car, with minor trim changes and a moderately more luxurious interior.

The truth is, in a way we have already driven the Fusion and the Milan, as well as the Lincoln Zephyr to follow. After all, the cars are all variants on the Mazda6 platform. Dimensions have changed, however–an inch or three was added to the length, the width, and the wheelbase–but the overall curb weight is actually lighter. Body panels and interior styling is all new, too. Enough has changed, in other words, for the Fusion/Milan to qualify as new cars–and for us worry that Ford might have dumbed down what we had thought of as one of the best midsizers.

Not to worry–the wait was worth it. From our first approach, we started to like these cars. Based upon the 427 concept, the lines are crisp and clean, angular in a moderately muscular way. Ford’s soon-to-be-ubiquitous three-bar grille graces the Fusion, while Mercury’s trademark waterfall grille sits at the Milan’s nose; both are attractive and modern. Taillights–both the Ford’s basic red units and Mercury’s clear-lens lamps–have a triangular, almost Lexus IS300 look to them. This isn’t a segment where extroverted styling or dare-to-be-different quirkiness is appreciated, and neither Ford nor Mercury’s designers have given us anything too outrageous here. Still, we like the way these cars look, and we think America will, too.

In this class, however, looks aren’t enough to earn the sales-king crown. At least not the outside; family sedan buyers crave a comfortable, attractive and functional interior. Short story: the Fusion & Milan deliver. Softly angular and supremely stylish, the FoMoCo designers seem to have been given more free reign on these than perhaps ever before. We liked the steering wheel, with all its audio and climate-control buttons. We also liked the spacious feeling the interior imparts, although by the numbers there’s actually a bit less space than in most Japanese competitors. (At 15.8 cubic feet, trunk space is adequate and shaped well, too). The Milan we drove had the optional leather seating, luxurious yet tough, with cool baseball-like stitching. Other materials that make up the interior–the aluminum-look plastic, for instance–seem of good quality, and likely to stand up to the years of abuse a growing family can place on a car.

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Of course, for most Roadfly readers, interior & trunk space is less of a consideration than outright performance. Fortunately, Ford didn’t drop the ball here, as they did with the Five Hundred. Full disclosure–we didn’t drive the base models, which come with a 160-hp four-banger–but at least you can get a stick-shift in those. We did, however, get behind the wheel of the 221-horse six-cylinder car (standard in the Mercury and Lincoln; a wise, $3,100 choice for Fusion buyers). Just as in the Mazda, we found this powerplant, mated to a *six*-speed automatic in this case, to be more than adequate. It revs well, although the shifter only offers Drive and Low options, which inhibits control somewhat. At 8 seconds flat to 60 m.p.h., this is no sports sedan, but respectable in its own right nonetheless. While Honda’s Accord–with an extra 20 horses under the hood and lighter to boot–is faster, the Fusion/Milan/Zephyr is neither underpowered nor strained in spirited driving.

Speaking of spirited driving, we subjected our test car to some–including a few laps around a NASCAR track and a road course. Where the bigger-brothers Five Hundred/Montego would have wallowed their way probably into the weeds, the CD3 cars (that’s the expanded Mazda6 platform’s in-house designation) represented themselves well. Body roll was certainly present, but only as much as you’d expect there to be in a car whose mission is more ferrying kids to school than ferrying helmet-clad racers around a track. The ride was one of the nicest in the class, and most impacts were barely felt–this was impressive when you consider the actually decent handling. All told, the suspension (short/long arm front and rear multilink)setup does its job well, without sucking all the fun out of driving, like many rivals do. The rack and pinion steering is appropriately accurate; again better than many competitors.

Ford has the capacity to build some 300,000 of these sedans, in the Hermosillo, Mexico plant. That figure would bring Ford right in line with Honda Accord and Toyota Camry sales–right where the Dearborn brand used to reside when the Taurus was new. If our time spent inside the Milan and outside the Fusion is any indication (and if Ford can manage build quality good enough to prevent them earning the dubious distinction of ‘most recalled car of the year’ that the Focus held when new), it just might happen. From those of us who are getting tired of bland-looking Accords and blander-performing Camrys clogging our asphalt automotive arteries, that’d be a blessing–just as it would be to Ford stakeholders.

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