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Review – 2010 Mercury Milan Hybrid

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.

Watch our video review too!

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.

The trunk's interior latch appears aimed at kidnappees.

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:

Godspeed, Mercury.

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

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Review – 2009 Audi TT-S Roadster

The Good: Sweet-shifting transmission, stellar handling, looks like a roadster should.

The Bad: Turbo lag kind of a bummer, flatulent exhaust can be grating.

The Verdict: Convertible fun in a balanced package.

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While automotive journalists and racing drivers alike often extol the virtues of closed-roof sports cars, there is simply no substitute for the experience of a convertible. Sure, chopping the roof may give up some structural integrity and motorized tops may add weight, but no amount of lightness or strength can replace the feeling of racing along with the wind in your hair, nothing between you and the sky. For most of us, driving a convertible is as close as we’ll ever come to flying.

That said, the Audi TT-S Roadster is a wonderful substitute for a jetpack.

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Thankfully, little of the TT coupe’s clean, elegant styling is lost in the transformation from hardtop to softtop. The styling modifications baked in with the high-performance S package thankfully avoid the gaudiness all too often associated with “sportier” models; if anything, the front lip spoiler and raised wheel arches draw a strong link to Audi’s outstanding R8 supercar. And while “Brilliant Red” might not be the best choice for every car, it sat on the TT-S’s hull like the car was born to wear it. Put it this way – pull up in this car at a party, and you won’t have any trouble snaring some ass. And I don’t mean farm animals. (Unless that’s how you roll.)

The car’s expensive looks and feel are all the more impressive, given that under the skin, the TT-S is little more than a Volkswagen Rabbit (nee Golf), sharing its chassis (hence the car’s rather diminutive size) and engines – in the case of the TT-S, an uprated version of the GTI’s 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-four cranking out 265 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque.

All this juice is routed to all four wheels through the Volkswagen Group’s dual-clutch gearbox, formerly known as DSG but currently called S tronic. Whatever you call it, the dual-clutch box operates almost seamlessly. As with the dual clutch tranny of the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, the TT-S’s gearbox offers multiple ways of choosing your next gear.

Leave it in automatic, and it’ll shift itself without a second thought. Slap the shift lever sideways into Sport mode, and the car assumes you’re trying to recreate Ronin, holding gears close to the redline to keep the engine on the boil. And if you prefer manual override, you can pick your own gears using either the lever or the small metal paddles affixed to the back of the wheel, which feel great but can be hard to find during turns. In automatic mode or under hard acceleration, it snaps off shifts like rifle fire; driving sedately in manual mode, there can be a pause between toggling the shift paddle and the desired effect, but the gap is short enough to effectively be a non-issue.

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Slightly more annoying than the transmission’s quirks is the tendency of the quite exhaust pipes to burp quite loudly on every upshift. While it certainly adds a welcomed sense of fuck yeah! during hard-charging acceleration, it can grow a little tiresome while tooling around town. A system that restricts the belching to hard-core acceleration would certainly be appreciated.

Still, there’s little to complain about in regards to the car’s performance. Acceleration runs towards the back of the sport roadster class – not surprising, as the TT-S is quite a bit less powerful than competitors like the Porsche Boxster S, the awkwardly named BMW Z4 sDrive35i, or even the Chevrolet Corvette convertible. However, unless you’ve got the car’s competitors at hand for direct comparison, you’ll only be disappointed with the TT-S’s acceleration if you’re trading down from a Ferrari.

To access that power, though, you’ll have to punch through some turbo lag early on. Below 3000 rpm, the four-cylinder feels a touch anemic; once past that point, though, things stay interesting all the way up to the redline. Still, driving around New York City, I often found myself dropping a gear in order to keep up with traffic. (Then again, if all you need to deal with traffic in New York is a downshift, consider yourself lucky. I usually need something in a 12-gauge Remington.)

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Plus, when the roads start winding, the Audi grabs hold like an angry cat on carpet. Compact car or not, the Rabbit/Golf’s capable handling has often been celebrated, and the lowered ride height and AWD of the Audi only add to it. Should you desire, you can turn cloverleafs into G-force simulators with relative ease (but make sure your soda lid is screwed on tight).

Unfortunately, all that performance makes for quite a bit of temptation, and even if you’re lucky enough to avoid speeding tickets (good luck with that), playing with this Audi can cost you at the pump. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 21 city/29 highway; however, achieving the higher figure likely requires driving with the top up at 55 miles per hour, and if you’re driving your TT-S like that, you should just pull over and give the car to the nearest teenager. My tester’s low fuel light popped on after just 330 miles.

Inside, the TT-S boasts the same sort of quality seen all along the Audi line. You sit low in the car, with the high doors creating a mild case of “bathtub effect.” In keeping with the nature of the car, sporty touches abound, from the snug seats to the metallic finish on the shift lever and paddles and the thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel similar to the one in the Lamborghini Gallardo. (Lamborghini, like Audi, is owned by the Volkswagen Group – along with Bentley, Bugatti, and a host of European carmakers American audiences have probably never heard of.)

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Of course, no matter how committed you are to soaking up the sun – or in the case of Irish people like myself, risking melanoma – eventually some sort of event will occur (thunderstorm, hole in the ozone layer, Mothman attack) that will cause you to raise the top. Thankfully, the TT-S makes it easy; press and hold one button, and the top will rise or fall as you desire, even while driving at low speeds. While power hard tops have come into vogue in the last several years, the TT-S doesn’t suffer for choosing canvas over metal; the top boasts a glass rear window, feels nearly as strong as a hard one, and was just as effective at keeping warmth in and noise out.

The Bottom Line: From its humble roots in the Volkswagen family, the TT-S has grown into a genuine sports car. While it may lack the mid-mounted engines or hefty V-8s of other roadsters, the little Audi still kicks ass and takes names while making you feel like an action hero. Sure, it’s not the perfect convertible for everyone – there are faster roadsters, more convenient roadsters, flashier roadsters and cheaper roadsters – but the TT-S strikes a nice balance between value, size and style. Lay your eyes on one, and it’s hard to look away; drop the top, crank up your favorite Foo Fighters song and floor it through a couple of gears, and you’ll be hooked.

All figures are for 2010 models; the car is effectively unchanged from 2009.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $54,950/$54,950

0-60: 5.1 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 21 city/29 highway

Key Competitors: BMW Z4 sDrive35i, Porsche Boxster S, Mercedes-Benz SLK350, Chevrolet Corvette.

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Review – 2009 Infiniti G37 Coupe AWD

The Good: Stylish enough to be Italian, powerful enough to be American, and packing enough geekery to be true to its Japanese heritage.

The Bad: A little soft in the turns, can’t have Sport Package and AWD, audio overkill.

The Verdict: The poor(er) man’s Maserati.

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In the analog automotive world, the term gran turismo usually refers to sleek, powerful cars designed for crossing continents. The term hearkens back to an age when road trips were romantic things, before the minivan and the rear-seat DVD player turned thousand-mile drives into things to be endured, rather than savored.

But those great touring cars are still around today, and while the term is usually thrown around in the context of six-figure exotics, there are plenty of less expensive cars ideal for endless road trips along both highways and byways.

The Infiniti G37 coupe is one of those cars. Leave its four-door brother for the “responsible” middle-managers with kids and jobs they detest; the two-door G37 is for those whose souls cry for the endless road trip, wanderers who need only a fine machine around them and an endless supply of rock and roll to be happy.

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And the G37 coupe delivers on both those counts. Equipped with the Premium and Navigation Packages, as my tester was, the G37 offers as many varieties of audio as your local Best Buy – AM/FM radio, Sirius XM satellite radio, CD player, iPod-specific connector, internal hard drive, and flash memory slot. Play it right, and you won’t hear the same song twice until James T. Kirk is left fatherless after birth, causing him to develop into a more dickish yet more svelte adult than he would have been otherwise.

All those tunes flow through an 11-speaker Bose audio system dubbed the “Infiniti Studio on Wheels.” While this “studio” won’t let you cut an acoustic version of “Waking Up In Vegas” (thank God), it will let you properly memorialize Michael Jackson with clean, crisp sound. Whether it’s worth the $3,000 for the Premium package is up to you; however, if it makes the choice any easier, it comes bundled with a moonroof and Bluetooth (which refused to work in my car, for some reason).

But to spend all your time listening to the radio would deprive you of the roar of the 3.7 liter V6 – and that would be a shame. Floor the throttle, and the engine (shared with pretty much every vehicle in the Infiniti lineup, and quite a few in the Nissan line as well) cuts loose with a throaty growl certain to make teenagers and dogs look your way. If you blindfolded the average person and asked them to identify what sort of car it came from, they’d probably be more likely to pick something from Italy than Japan.

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However, pull that blindfold off, and they might still make the same mistake. With curves and lines that could have been penned by Pininfarina, the G37 Coupe oozes the sex appeal of a much more expensive car. Admittedly, the tail end looks may have gone under the knife one time too many, but the front view sends blood places usually reserved for a Maserati – or Megan Fox – sighting.

The stylishness continues inside the cabin, where brushed aluminum sweeps across the dashboard and down the waterfall-like center console. It’s a good thing that console looks so nice, because your eyes will be glancing that way quite a bit; housed atop it is the large, vivid touchscreen display for the navigation and stereo.

The navigation system offers no fewer than three ways to control it – by touching the screen, using the control buttons below the screen, or via voice commands. While three control methods might seem redundant, they each have distinct benefits – for example, scrolling is best accomplished with the physical scroll knob, while voice control is great for times when you need both hands on the wheel.

The nav system itself is easy to follow and loaded with helpful features, such as real-time traffic conditions and lane diagrams to point you in the right direction during complex intersections. However, the system isn’t flawless – driving up the New Jersey turnpike, it inexplicably directed me through the long-term parking lot at Newark Airport on the way to the Holland Tunnel. And is it really necessary for the system to tell you not to take every exit on the highway?

Aside from the navigation, the other big techno gun in the G37’s road-trip arsenal is its laser cruise control. Sadly, this doesn’t involve vaporizing slower-moving traffic, but rather using an invisible laser beam to judge the distance from the car in front of you. If the Infiniti gets too close, it automatically slows to maintain the set distance.

The default, longest setting is strictly for driver’s ed class; people will be cutting in front of you so often, you’ll be in a constant state of slowing down. (Though as George Carlin said, given all the toll booths, that’s really all you do in New Jersey anyway.) Luckily, there are two shorter settings – or you can turn the laser off altogether.

But with 330 horsepower under the hood, you probably won’t want to use the cruise control very much. Putting it simply – this baby hauls. Car and Driver recorded a 0-60 time of 5.3 seconds for the Sport model, and you’ll probably want to try and break that every chance you can. It almost made the $45 I spent on tolls driving from NYC to D.C. worth it, just the floor the car out of the gate and rip up to speed across the broad post-toll expanse.

However, the stock suspension doesn’t live up to the engine’s promise; the tires squeal around cloverleaves, and while “sportiness” is obviously on the car’s list of priorities, it’s a couple slots lower than enthusiasts would like. The Sport Package, which gets a 6-speed manual (or paddle shifters for the 7-speed auto, if you fail at driving), sport suspension, and stronger brakes, would probably make all the difference; however, my tester instead came with all-wheel-drive, and Infiniti doesn’t offer the two packages together. (BMW lets you get AWD and the Sport Package on the 3-series – so what’s up, Infiniti?)

The AWD certainly increases the car’s capabilities as a real-world vehicle, rendering it all but unstoppable; the car never slipped or faltered, even taking a tight uphill turn in the midst of a torrential rain storm. Personally, I’d rather grab the Sport package and drive a little more carefully during bad weather in exchange for the added performance and fun most of the time; but if you live somewhere where inclement weather is a concern, the AWD would make the G37 an ideal two-person car.

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Two people, mind you, not more – at least, not on a regular basis. Calling the car a four-seater isn’t quite a lie, but you might want to think twice about saying that in court. While there are two seats in back, they’re best reserved for people you really don’t like. Legroom is tight for anyone over 5’6”, headroom even tighter, and the low roof and small windows render the space rather claustrophobic. Four adults could squeeze into the car for a crosstown jaunt, but anything beyond ten miles would be cruel and unusual.

Cargo space is surprisingly adequate; I was able to squeeze most of a two-person Costco run into the trunk, with the rest comfortably residing in the back seat. And anyone who’s ever had a cat will appreciate the G37’s “butt button” – press it, and the trunk lid rises, just like when you touch the base of a feline tail.

Bottom line, the G37 Coupe makes for a great gran turismo; it’s gorgeous, flies along open roads, fits two people’s luggage easily, and offers enough music options to allow you to drive from Bangor to San Diego without hearing the same song twice. The AWD is a nice insurance policy, but by making it and the Sport Package mutually exclusive, the Infiniti lacks the performance bits needed to make the car into a true sport coupe.

If you consider yourself a real driver – someone who owns dedicated driving shoes and knew Clive Owen before he was cool from the BMW Films – you’ll want to take the Sport Package. However, anyone with a love for the open road (and $39,515) won’t be disappointed with the G37 Coupe in any form. It’s the sort of car you could drive forever and a day, from one new town to the next on an endless adventure. And for all the fun there is to be had on a race track, isn’t that the real magic of the automobile?

Base Price/Price As Tested: $39,515/$46,195

0-60: 5.3 seconds (Sport model; courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18/25 city/highway (EPA)/ 22.6 (observed)

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