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
They should have updated the Marquis instead. Bland little car like this could only hurt Mercury. They should have built a decent cougar and a decent looking version of the taurus.
Agreed regarding the Cougar – maybe back to square one as an upscale Mustang.
By the early 2000s, the Grand Marquis was the only Panther-platform model with decent retail sales (Crown Vic and Town Car both were around 90% fleet), and Grand Marquis volumes alone didn’t justify any updates beyond those required for regulatory reasons. Large RWD cars were a dying market as their customre base died off (or moved to assisted living or nursing homes. I suppose an updated Grand Marquis could have gotten a few incremental sales, but I doubt they would have paid for any substantial investment in the model.
In the early 2000’s Ford made a massive investement in the Panther line up with a 100% new front suspension and steering system as well as a stiffer frame. Not only was that front suspension new it was state of the art with a tall spindle, massive cast aluminum crossmember, cast aluminum lower control arms, coil overs and rack and pinion steering. The problem with that was that is was also much more expensive to produce and they quickly designed some cheaper stamped steel lower control arms to reduce the cost.
The bigger problem was that they seemed to be too busy listening to the automotive hacks (writers) who constantly complained about the ride and handling and that was where they spent their reduced budget. So for the consumer who doesn’t know or care about the benefits of that new suspension they were just looking at the same old car. Supposedly they were originally going to make changes to the body but when the budget was cut that went out the window.
Personally I think the money would have been better spent on a new or at least substantially differentiated body, even though I do prefer the 03 up chassis.
Agree with most of what scoutman said. The 2003 improvement to the Marquis was a complete waste. The old suspension and steering gearbox was more durable and simpler than the rack and pinion. And the old serviceable bearings we’re a plus. Instead of wasting the money on something no one cared about the body should have been restyled and moved to the Lincoln chasis with the extended wheelbas Lincolns being standard model.. other place they messed up was dropping the big cougar. That chasis would have been good under a sedan too. As for the rest of the cars they all sucked as in no reason to exist. Ford should rebadge all the current mk Lincoln cars as mercuries. And keep Continental as entry level car and build a mark coupe and convertible and proper town car along with rear wheel drive and available with V8. And the navigator and aviator.
Nice write up Brendan.
I’ve always liked the Milan. Like you said, its got a bit of a unique flair to it. They just weren’t necessary in the Ford lineup. Mercury was just too similar to its Blue Oval brethren. The Milan was basically a slightly different trim level of the Fusion, and without any meaningful differences like NVH enhancements or improved power train options, it was doomed to failure. Ford itself even demonstrated its uselessness with the 2013 Fusion, which really just incorporated the Milan into its lineup with the Titanium trim.
And I really need to get into Mad Men. I’ve heard such good things but never pulled the trigger.
Mad Men to this day is still one of my favorite series. I’ve watched it from beginning to end twice, and it’s one of those series I’ll occasionally pick up and watch a few episodes from a random season.
I found Mad Men to be a supreme bore. Aside from the period detail which is great, the show wore pretty thin with me very quickly. The same mysogynist ad men smoking, drinking and having casual sex week after week. Zzzzzzzzz.
All Mercurys had more sound deadening material than their Ford counterparts.
Arguably the concurrent Mondeo already had a nicer interior than the Milan, certainly moreso than this example. Granted, Mercury wasn’t sold in markets the Mondeo was offered in, but it foreshadowed what Ford was capable of in its own models.
Excellent article, Brendan!
I’d forgotten just how good-looking the early Milans were – probably the best-looking cars in their class!
I like where Ford was taking Mercury marketing and people seemed to really love the Jill Wagner ads. But the brand was on death’s door and that was especially apparent when Ford refused to give it any crossovers beyond the Mariner. The Freestyle-based Magellan was nixed and no Mercury Edge ever came to be. But there was little point in pursuing Mercury any further when Ford could just offer high-trim Fords or more profitable Lincolns.
I have mixed emotions about your write up. I thought the Milan achieved the difference that Mercury used to have over Ford inasmuch as that’s possible with the CAFE/EPA regs. If anything, the then-contemporary Lincoln Zephyr was the real impostor in this trio. It was a barely disguised Fusion without enough to differentiate it from the other two cars. I thought the Milan had better camouflage than the Zephyr and seemed more upscale than that car.
I especially thought that the refreshed Milan (2011+) pushed the differentiation further, but there was only so far they could go. There’s one I see on my bike rides, a V6 FWD (I believe) with the projector headlights, leather and nice alloys.
In a way, as a former Mercury fan, I’m kind of sorry I missed out on this generation of Milan. But, I was still digging out of my personal rubble of the Great Financial Crisis and couldn’t pop for a new car at the time. I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the Milan, it was a hidden gem. Certainly, better equipped than the Fusion and a better value than the Zephyr.
For these eyes, it always appeared the Zephyr was a complete afterthought. Whether it was or not I don’t know but it looks like Ford was simply running out of ideas on how to differentiate the Zephyr from the Fusion / Milan. Plus, from a historical perspective, few were the times a Lincoln shared doors and bodyshell with a Ford, which reinforces my thoughts about the Zephyr.
The Milan is going to continue to be a hidden gem for years to come. It’s too bad their timing never coincided with mine.
I agree that this era Zephyr/MKZ looked more like a rebadge job than the Milan and think the Milan was the most attractive of the bunch.
The Milan – along with the Fusion should have been Sable/Taurus, as they were pretty direct replacements for those models in size and all.
Overall, they were good cars, this from a Chevy guy!
+1. The best of the group was a Lincoln MKZ.
You are correct – a friend of mine has one – a nice ride.
The first Milans had a bolder taillight design. This car is invisible to everyone except car-heads like us.
Personally I was never a fan of the clear taillight design that Mercury tried across most of their line up in the late 00’s, reminded me too much of the cheezy aftermarket “Altezza” taillight fad. As a former Mercury buyer I wasn’t looking for the boy racer look.
The Mercury’s taillights looked way better than the Fusions. The Fusion’s were a blatant “altezza” style. it was the one thing I hated the most about my Fusion.
Yeah I didn’t like the first generation of Fusion taillights either.
Nicely written! I love the Kraft cheese and opera analogies. The car? Forgettable and ignored at the time, the telling signs of a future CC.
I absolutely agree these are a “future curbside classic”, but as Brendan pointed out, the initial 2007-2009 versions are the most elegant.
My mother drives an ’07 Milan Premiere she bought new, and I absolutely love it. My parents searched (thru dealer networks) the entire east coast of the United States to find one with a manual transmission; there were only two available, Florida to Maine, at the time they bought it. I’ve repeatedly told my parents that when they’re ready to get another car for my mom, I will buy it from them immediately. I can’t let such a rare car out of the family! The only thing that would be better is the 6-speed manuals found in the later models (2007 offered a 5-speed with a final drive ratio that’s surprisingly short).
That’s quite a unicorn your mom has! Seven or eight years ago I was in the market for a used car, and a manual Fusion or (preferably) Milan was high on my list. At that time, there were still a handful available on the used market, and I probably would have been happy with one.
It turned out that I didn’t buy a car that year at all, but I still remember scouring CarMax and other dealers’ inventories for used manual Milans.
The Milan was a nice-looking car that Mercury needed around circa 2000. Too little too late would be an apt description.
I’ve a minor nitpick, the transmission in a Hybrid is eCVT (same design as in Prius), not a regular CVT.
Yup an e-CVT is an entirely different thing than a regular belt CVT. It is the Hybrid system.
Duly noted and corrected 🙂
I would assume that this car must ride like shit given that curb rash has destroyed the rims beyond the point of them being balanced.
What fun to see the Milan here, and have its story told. Thanks, Brendan!
I was looking hard at these recently for a solid used car. Seems there numerous (mostly older) folks who were willing to spend some hundred$ more for their “Fancy Ford,” and there are a lot of them out there–well under 100K miles, and no more than $6K—ready to be driven a lot more miles.
It’s the rare Craigslist ad that has the manual transmission, but they can be found–though usually younger owner, more miles on car.
These were attractive cars. I worked with a guy who got one as a CarMax loaner when his recent purchase was getting some warranty work done on it. I remember being disappointed at the level of NVH – I expected something a little better given the car’s elegant looks both inside and out. Of course he got one with the 4 cylinder/automatic, so I would imagine that the V6 was better to drive.
It seems that Ford could just not get it right with Mercury. When they were pure badge-jobs, we all griped that there was no differentiation in the cars. Then when they really did spend money on different sheetmetal panels, most of us failed to notice and considered them badge-jobs anyway.
You mention NVH levels with these cars. I felt the same way with a co-worker’s V6 Fusion, compared to my 4 cylinder Pontiac G6. His car was not quite as well equipped as my G6, but that could not have accounted for the vast difference in NVH. I’d say both cars were constructed/assembled as well as the other; so no great advantage there.
I’ve felt this way about other recent Ford vehicles, they have seemed rougher around the edges than other similar competitive cars.
From a technical standpoint, there was nowhere for Mercury to go. The Japanese had raised the bar on what was an acceptable level of NVH. Ford (along with GM, and Chrysler) had to fall into line or be seem as below-par, cheap and nasty. It took a while for this lesson to percolate through the levels of corporate bureaucracy, but when it did the old ‘midprice’ brands really couldn’t justify their existence.
Agreed, Pete. I think I read somewhere (here?) once that a lot of Oldsmobile buyers migrated to Honda over the years… And that’s the thing, the Japanese never bothered with mid-priced brands. You had mainstream Toyota/Honda/Nissan and luxury Lexus/Acura/Infiniti.
I’ve said it before but there really was a good reason to keep Mercury and that was Lincoln. Fact is that for the average L-M dealer, Mercury had accounted for about half of their business. Together there was a case for a separate dealer network. That separate dealer network was what allowed them to sell Fords for Lincoln prices w/o stealing sales from Lincoln.
When the wife declared she needed a SUV we looked at the Explorer, Mountaineer and Aviator. The Aviator started at $40K right where the Mountaineer topped out, while you could spend almost $45k at the Ford store for the top Explorer.
Now Lincolns are an afterthought in the corner of a Ford store with poor selection at the local dealers and a general customer service experience that was not as good as the former L-M dealers in our area. Many don’t even have significant sinage to let you know they carry Lincoln. They have massive Blue Ovals front and center on the building with maybe a Lincoln window cling, Ditto for the signs, a huge Ford sign right near the road and a small Lincoln one sticking up awkwardly in some random place that probably used to be the sign that denoted the used car section of their lot.
I think Ford’s marketing took a nosedive somewhere after 2005. There seemed to be a lot of confusion, especially around the time they shuttered Mercury.
Our local L-M dealer who used to do a pretty good business, apparently didn’t qualify for a Ford franchise, so now he’s got a Lincoln dealership with a ton of used cars on it. Even though the signage is Lincoln, you can’t tell that it’s a new car store, because most of the cars on the lot are used models.
With no Mercury line to sell, he needed something. But, with no Mercury to upsell into Lincolns, I think eventually, he’ll have to do something else. Especially considering the confusion going on with Lincoln right now.
I remember the late ’70s when I was starting high school, peering into the windows of the latest Mercurys/Lincolns at the Lincoln-Mercury dealer across the road from the school. Even as a 14 yr old I understood the heirarchy; Ford for the basic vehicles, Mercury for something a little nicer, and Lincoln for the top end.
Mercury became the “Grand Marquis brand” for old timers and rentals by 2000-10. The rebadged Ford SUV’s never really caught on or stood on their own. Were just like the 70’s Comet, Monarch and Bobcat, ‘me too’ products for L-M dealers to compete with Ford.
Some car fans claimed Ford “needed Mercury to sell to women”, but they just liked seeing different grilles/looks for car trivia. And the “Jill what’s-her-name ads.”
When my wife and I bought our last new car we looked at a 2010 Mercury Milan at our local Lincoln – Mercury dealer. As I recall the car we drove was a sliver color similar to one of the cars pictured in this post. It was a V6 and the dealer was eager to deal to move the iron. Seeing the dashboard pictures reminds me why we rejected the Mercury: The air conditioning controls look like a last minute add on shoved in at the bottom of the dash by the shifter. After bad memories of “bump shifting” my old Neon into neutral going to change the radio station, I wasn’t risking that again. We bought the 2010 Mazda 6 we still own today instead.
“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. ”
The 1991-1994 Mercury Capri and the 1999-2002 Mercury Cougar takes exception to this statement. The Capri was badged as a Ford in other markets, but in the US it was a very unique Mercury. The Cougar was based on the Contour/Mystique platform, but was a very unique product that you couldn’t have in the Ford dealership.
That’s why I included the “almost always” part 🙂
But I agree about the Cougar’s appeal. I certainly was intrigued by it when it came out, and many years after.
Unfortunately in both those cases the car was in a small and/or dying niche almost guaranteeing that it wasn’t going to sell in any significant number, and be destined for a short life.
To be picky, the Crown Victoria became a badge engineered Grand Marquis after the CV gave up its unique roof and adopted the roof of the GM in the later 90’s.
Good point though to be fair the common shell from 98 on isn’t quite the same as the 97 and earlier Grand Marquis shell.
Very attractive with unique “semi-gloss” trim. Much better looking than the Ford. I’d like to see Mercury make a comeback.
There were a few good reasons to keep Mercury around for both Ford and its customers;
One was that the Lincoln-Mercury dealer experience was MARKEDLY different than the Ford dealer experience. The Ford dealers (at least in my area of Atlanta) always seemed to have watched all the movies about scummy car dealers as instruction manuals. (true story, we bought a 4 year old used 1996 Thunderbird, 60,000 miles from Banner Ford and it turned out to be a salvage title car and we had to call the Ford Zone office to get them to take it back). Even if the Sable/Lynx/Topaz was the same as the companion Ford, the buying and service experience was better.
Two, Mercurys could be typically better equipped than the Ford, so the dealers didn’t have to stock every single permutation of the Taurus available. Customers who wanted the stripper Taurus could go to Ford, customers who wanted a larger selection of something plushier could go to Mercury.
Mercury could be a good place to put cars which either competed head on with cars in Ford’s lineup or had no other good place to go such as the ’70’s Capri, which ate the Mustang II’s lunch, or the Merkur line, which had Ford been more committed and they had dropped the prices, could have gotten traction, or the ’90’s Capri or the Contour Cougar. The Mercury Villager was quite popular for a while.
As someone already stated, it made it possible to generate volumes out of Lincoln which justified a separate brand. Lincoln doesn’t generate enough volume to be a separate brand now and is definitely an afterthought in the Ford showroom.
The other great reason for Mercury to exist was it was a great place to dump all the off-rental Lincolns. Well, if you aren’t taken with the Sable, I can get you in a two year old Town Car for about the same money . . .
Some brands did need to go, but an upscale Ford with a premium dealer experience does make sense. Ford really killed Mercury when the Taurus got successful by pushing the Taurus to be number 1 in sales and shutting off the Sable. Now they’re sort of trying to do that with Lincoln, and that is going to be a hard row to hoe.
I looked at the Milan and the Fusion at the auto shows when they were new and there wasn’t any price difference and it was hard to tell what the differences were. I do think they felt considerably smaller than the Taurus/Sable, although not as small as the Contour. If the Milan is styled differently from the Fusion, I’ve never noticed.
Thanks for getting me acquainted with this car, Brendan. Never seen one (it’s been 10 years since I last went to the US), its front end looks much better than the Fusion’s.
“interiors on par with Japanese competitors,” you say. Not doubting you – like I said, I’ve never seen this Mercury in the flesh, just wondering if this is not a bit rose-tinted. Could earlier Mercurys (from the ’70s on) make this claim?
I don’t know, but it feels not. Japanese Mercury sounds rather oxymoronic, like “French Mercedes”.
Well I don’t think Mercury had the austere Japanese interiors in mind when they were designing in the 70’s and on but they were different than that of the Fords well into the 90’s with cars like the Grand Marquis and Crown Victoria or Taurus and Sable having entirely different dashes and the base Mercury Interior being closest to the mid range Ford, though with more sound deadening insulation.
Another great piece, Brendan. I share your opinion that the midlife refresh was not a stylistic step in the right direction. The original Milan was a great looking car, I thought.
Cool stuff you have and you keep overhaul every one of us