The Good: Excellent gas mileage, high quality inside and out, makes driving efficiently fun.
The Bad: $32 grand for a family car, not long for this world.
The Verdict: Mercury finally has a sedan people want—too late to make a difference.
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A moment of silence, please, for Mercury.
Decades ago, Ford’s midlevel brand had panache. During the Heyday of America (1945-1968), the brand was a step on the ladder to success; driving a Mercury meant while you may not be able to afford a Lincoln just yet, you’d pulled yourself up high enough by your bootstraps to graduate from those run-of-the-mill Fords. Much like Buick over at GM, Mercurys were just fancy enough to make their drivers feel slightly superior.
However, much like Buick, the brand lost their way in the last few decades of the 20th century, and spent much of recent history cranking out mildly gussied-up versions of Ford vehicles. (The last Mercury to differ in more than badging from a Ford product was the Cougar—and that cat went extinct in 2002.) So it was no surprise when Ford announced on June 2nd they’d be euthanizing the nameplate this year. While Buick escaped the executioner’s block by virtue of its immense popularity in China, the 72-year-old Mercury remained unloved by any rapidly expanding consumer nations, and so we bid it adieu.
But come December, don’t be surprised if the last Mercury to ever roll off the assembly line is a Milan Hybrid—because this is the first Mercury in a long time to instill in its owners that tiny feeling of supremacy. Sure, the car’s pretty much a clone of the Ford Fusion Hybrid (though a bit less plebian to my eyes), but who cares? This car makes you feel just a bit better than all those clods in their Foci.
But in this eco-conscious age, those feelings stem less from the car’s price (though if you can afford a car that costs more than $30,000 in this economy, you can probably pat yourself on the back) and more from the impressive fuel economy figures eked out by the gasoline-electric powertrain. By mating a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine to a 275-volt nickel-metal hydride battery, the Milan achieves 41 miles per gallon around town and 36 mpg on the open road, according to the EPA. (Fast fact: at a combined 39 mpg, you could drive the Milan hybrid 1,111,500,000 miles on the amount of gasoline that could have been made from the crude leaked so far by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill! That’s 2,326 round trips to the Moon!)
However, unlike some hybrids, the Mercury doesn’t sacrifice much power on the altar of efficiency; the engine-motor combo creates a combined maximum of 191 horsepower, par for the midsized hybrid sedan segment where it competes. (The comparable Nissan Altima Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid make 198 and 187 horses, respectively.) With the power traveling to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission, the dash from 0 to 60 arrives in 8.5 seconds, according to a Car and Driver test of the mechanically identical Fusion Hybrid.
Impressively, the Milan/Fusion duo of hybrids can reach a claimed top speed of 47 miles per hour on electricity alone; I never quite reached that mark just on juice, but did once make it up to about 45 only on electrons. As John Mellencamp said, that’s close enough for rock and roll. However, making maximum mpg means driving like a rock star is out of the question; a feathery touch on the accelerator is required to keep the inline four from leaping into action. Remember when your parents/driver’s ed teacher/arresting police officer told you to imagine there was an egg under the pedal? If your aim is to use as little gasoline as possible in the Milan, it’s best to picture a helium balloon tied to your right foot. Or better yet, actually tie a helium balloon to your right foot.
But there’s an unexpected side effect to this: it makes driving slow fun. Instead of seeing how quickly you can swoop through the turns or bomb the quarter mile, the joy comes from toying with the formerly-known-as-the-gas pedal, trying to use as little energy as possible to move about without risking incoming gunfire from drivers behind you. (That’s not a joke here in New York City.) In an increasingly common burst of creativity and wisdom, the folks at Ford Motor Company included multiple means of informing the driver just how eco-friendly s/he is being—most inventively, by including a virtual patch of vines on the digital instrument panel, which grows leaves when the car is driven efficiently and sheds them when you’re pissing off the planet. Sounds stupid, but I found it surprisingly effective—and guilt inducing. (“NOOOOOO! THE LEAVES ARE DYING!”)
Apart from the powertrain, the Milan is pretty much standard Ford material—which is to say, a lot better than it was five or more years ago. (Maybe it’s time to reanimate that old “Have you driven a Ford lately?” tagline.) The gray leather seats in my tester were comfy on long hauls, but not particularly well-bolstered; of course, the hybrid Milan really isn’t aimed at those who’re big into hauling ass and taking license plate numbers, so this comes as little surprise. But the leather was soft, the plastic on the dashboard pleasant to the touch, and the interior proved quite appealing to at least four senses. (I did not lick it.)
This Milan was also equipped with Ford’s Sync system, designed by Microsoft to make ease integrating your cell phone/iPod/microwave oven with the car’s computer. It let me play music from my iPhone through Bluetooth, but wouldn’t read my incoming text messages to me because my phone was “incompatible.” Plus, Sync repeatedly “lost” my phone’s signal, forcing me to dive into the car’s submenus to manually reconnect. (I imagine the car did this passive-aggressively as part of a “I’m a Mac / And I’m a PC” interaction.)
But the rest of the car’s tech proved well above and beyond what I expect from family sedans. The rearview camera and parking sensors were, as always, handy, and the navigation system never steered me wrong. (It does leave “bread crumbs” on the screen to track where you’ve been; after several days driving around New York City, however, it was starting to look like Little Billy’s dotted line from The Family Circus.) The Sony-designed 12 speaker, 390-watt stereo knocked my ears out of the park; I never had to turn it up past 30 percent power. And having two 12-volt cigarette lighter-style and one household-style 110-volt three-prong outlets was quite nice. Finally, I could use my MacBook, my iPhone and my iPad all at once without fear of low batteries—while driving!
[Editor’s note: he did not actually do this. But if Apple wants to give us some freebies so our passengers can try it, we won’t say no.]
The Bottom Line:
The Milan will all but certainly be the last new car made by this septuagenarian brand, unless Ford decides to reward the brand’s tiny audience of fans and unveils a Mercury version of the Mustang. (The Pegasus?) But this hybrid’s virtues have earned it a place in the brand’s history—not just because it was the last in a long line of Mercurys, but because it was the last Mercury anyone could drive and feel proud that they were doing so. Death will guarantee the Milan Hybrid shall remain a rarity on our roads; the company sold only 1, 486 in 2009, and pre-extinction-purchase-fever aside, I doubt the company will sell more than that this year. (In contrast, the Fusion Hybrid sold 15,554 units last year.) But those 3,000 owners can take pride in knowing they’re driving a unique version of the best family sedan Detroit has made in a very long time—and that’s starting to mean something again.
So with that, we say goodbye to the brand with a phrase most apt for a car company named after the messenger of the gods:
Base Price/Price As Tested: $31,980/$32,980
0-60: 8.5 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)
Fuel Economy: 41 city/36 highway (EPA estimate)
Key Competitors: Toyota Camry Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid, Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid