In the days when automobile brands offered just a few models each, it made sense for an automaker to have multiple brands positioned at different price tiers, differentiated by distinct price brackets and brand-specific styling. But as the years went on, with expanded number of models and luxury features trickling down to low-cost models faster than ever, the lines between divisions became blurred, often squeezing out mid-priced brands such as Ford’s Mercury division. In its final decades leading up to its 2011 demise, every single car was a badge engineered version of another Ford (or in one case, Nissan) product, almost always having a near-twin available in the North American market. Which makes the story of the Mercury Milan all the more tragic.
Although still a badge-engineered version of a domestic Ford, the Milan was an unexpected breath of fresh air as far as badge engineering goes, as in the Milan, Mercury had something it hadn’t had in over a decade: a genuinely competitive midsize sedan.
Boasting a modern chassis, updated engines, advanced transmissions (including one of the first 6-speed automatics in a non-luxury midsize sedan), abundant tech features, interiors on par with Japanese competitors, and reasonably differentiated styling from its siblings, the Milan was an appealing midsize sedan in its own right. Furthermore, the Milan was quite easily the strongest product Mercury launched in its final decade. If only it had arrived a few years earlier.
Serving as the primary replacement for the elderly D186-based Sable, Mercury called its new midsize sedan “Milan”, invoking thoughts of of Italy’s trendy fashion capital. This was consistent with Mercury’s new branding strategy at the time, aimed at younger, image-conscious buyers valuing chicness and sophistication, and armed with targeted TV spots featuring spokesperson Jill Wagner on networks such as HGTV, DIY, and Food Network, and print advertisements in publications including Yoga Journal and Everyday With Rachel Ray… according to Ford Motor Company’s press release, at least.
Indeed a far more refined and cultured car than its ovoid, contoured-sided, Integrated Control Panel bearing, plasti-wood adorned, droopy rear predecessor which dated back to 1996 in most respects, the upscale Milan was no more Italian than Kraft Parmesan Cheese. In fact, most of the Milan’s underpinnings were Japanese.
Based on the Mazda-derived Ford CD3 platform, the Mercury Milan shared much of its DNA with the Mazda6, and was more or less identical to the Ford Fusion and Lincoln Zephyr/MKZ. The Ford-Mercury-Lincoln trio shared the same bodies and doors, with primary differences limited to front and rear styling, interiors, and powertrain choices.
More similar to the Fusion than the Zephry/MKZ, externally, the Milan differed in its more upscale styling, highlighted by a prominent satin-aluminum finish waterfall grille, larger up-swept projector-beam headlights, chrome window surrounds, fancier wheel choices, and trapezoidal LED taillights. Front and rear bumpers, hood, and front quarter panels were unique to the Milan.
Now unlike its Fusion sibling, which arguably benefited from its 2010-model year refresh, the Milan’s original 2006-2009 design was more striking and elegant, with its crisper lines and more chiseled front end. Its own 2010 facelift came across as one merely for the sake of change and not improvement. With a more droopy looking front end and plainer taillights, the 2010 Milan didn’t look didn’t give off the same level of confidence, looking neither as cohesive, nor as elegant as the original.
Inside, the theme of change for the sake of change and not for the better continued, although in this case the 2010 Milan’s mild interior refresh was neither any better or worse really, just different. Mimicking the new front end design, the center stack, dash, and sew pattern of seatbacks featured a few more curves in the 2010-2011 (lower right only).
The center console was redesigned with a new automatic gearshift, cupholders, and added aluminum trim, while models equipped with navigation gained an enlarged screen positioned higher than before for better sight. Sadly, the analogue clock was deleted.
Trivial as it may sound, details such as adequate aluminum trim, two-tone color schemes, and tasteful dark woodtone accents did give the Milan’s interior, at least in higher trims, a more upscale vibe than its Fusion sibling, and a more inviting, understated environment than the gaudy retro-ness of the Zephyr/MKZ’s original interior.
Despite hard plastic here and there, material quality was generally up to snuff for the era, though in its final years started showing its age.
Not all Milans were “luxury” versions however, as this base model clearly shows with its rental car grade cloth seats, with extra physical buttons and a tiny non-color LCD screen occupying extra real estate in lieu of a nav screen. Still, small touches like its chrome interior door handles, stitched leatherette armrest, and upholstered door panels did give the Milan a bit more substance than other lower trim mainstream sedans.
The Milan was available in both four and six cylinder power, with the I4 offering an available (and ultra rare) manual transmission and the V6 offering available all-wheel drive. Its Duratec I4 was initially 2.3 liters making 160 horsepower and 156 lb-ft torque mated to either a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic. It was enlarged to 2.5 liters making 175 horsepower and 172 lb-ft torque in 2010, with both transmissions now sporting 6 speeds.
The 3.0 liter V6 initially made 221 horsepower and 205 lb-ft torque, upped to 240 horsepower and 223 lb-ft torque for 2010, with a 6-speed automatic as the sole transmission. Also added for 2010 was a hybrid model, featuring a 2.5 liter Atkinson Cycle inline-4 making 156 horsepower and 136 lb-ft torque, plus a permanent magnet synchronous electric motor for combined output of 191 horsepower. Mated to an eCVT, the Milan hybrid was capable of 41 mpg city/36 mpg highway.
By the time the Milan debuted, Mercury sales were already tanking, so achieving major success was unrealistic. Averaging between 27K-37K calendar sales from 2006-2010, the Milan was Mercury’s best selling model in those years, with the Mariner taking a close second. Milan sales were minuscule when compared to the Fusion, which sold upwards of 140K each of those years, and over 200K by 2010, although it did consistently outsell its more costly Lincoln Zephyr/MKZ sibling each year.
Much like many characters in Italian operas, the Mercury Milan was a tragic character. It seemed like a step in the right direction, offering promise and a future for Mercury, but it came too late at a time when talk of Mercury shutting its doors was no longer a question of “if”, but rather “when”. A badge engineered version of not one but two cars, despite Mercury’s good intentions, there simply was no real point of having the Milan, or any other Mercury by this point for the Ford Motor Company. An appealing midsize sedan in its own right, the Milan wasn’t a stupid car, it just wasn’t smart enough.
Photographed: Rockland, Massachusetts – July 2018