Jalopnik Rental-car Reacharound: 2006 Mercury Milan

Today's Rental-car Reacharound comes from longtime commenter Nick Weaver, who recently took out a Mercury Milan during a recent business trip to Los Angeles. Send your rental-car stories (keep 'em to around 500 words) to tips@jalopnik.com.

I'm a "Let s get something different" rental-car junkie. If I'm stuck traveling for business, I ll gladly pay a few extra bucks out of pocket to get something better than an excretable Chevy Classic or Ford Focus. On a recent trip to LA, I was hoping for a convertible, but with only the fossilized Chrysler Sebring available, I opted out. Being happy with my Mazda6, I decided on Mercury's regrilled version of Ford's stretched Mazda, the Milan.

For once, this rental wasn't a complete stripper. Although it only had the 160hp I4 and ye-cliche five-speed slushbox, it was decked out in Premium trim (leather interior, six disk CD/MP3 stereo, steering-wheel-mounted stereo and cruise control) rather than the stock cloth and single-disk player; a worthwhile upgrade.

The Milan could be described as a Ford Fusion with the "Nice Interior" option. With more black and tan on tap than an Irish-themed airport bar, the rental s insides felt formal but airy. Although black-heavy, counting square-feet of dashboard and seat, contrasting tones imparted a brighter look. Details matter. Two primary textures, a mottled creasing (on the black leather, the dash pieces, and some of the door), and a regular grid-pitting (on the tan leather, door trim, and in print on the center stack and dividing trim) added visual interest. Even the stitching matched, with tan thread over black leather.

Gages are crisp and readable, with tasteful chrome surrounds (apart from the green dot matrix display for the odometer/trip), although the obligatory single-stalk Ford control interface is nowhere near as ergonomically refined as other cars separate signal/light and wiper stalk setup. What s more, the steering wheel buttons, ill integrated into the spokes, felt like an afterthought. Memo to Ford: Copy Mazda's control stalks and steering wheel next time.

Another memo to Ford: The center stack is elegant, except for the huge, black square that is the standard Ford stereo ruining the lines. At least spend an extra buck to get the stereo finished to match the center console. (Honda and company do a far better job make their stereos fit the console.)

On the road, the whole package was inoffensively solid. This niche of car is less about raising the pulse than keeping it in a cardiologist-recommended range. Acceleration is tolerable, but the Milan s I4 sips like the Dutchess of Gloucester. I saw 27 MPG in a mix of open freeway and really #@)*$ bad LA and San Diego traffic, with only minor leadfoot tendencies. The transmission could use a manumatic mode, like that of its Mazda cousin. It wouldn't really add anything to the performance, but at least it d make it feel faster.

In the on-ramp Grand Prix, the Milan held its own, with a well-planted feel during the "Left turn, right hand bank, full-throttle merge" event. (It didn't even protest during the "270-degree ramp at 45+ mph" event.) It courteously lacks the numbness of Camrys, and has retained much of the Mazda6 s directness, despite having been enlarged and Americanized.

On the whole, I was surprised. The Milan is competitively priced with the Japanese competition (and cheaper than the Mazda6), with a roomy, light, clean, well designed interior and a respectably solid road feel. It s a nice car at an almost freakishly low price. It s got all the good parts of the Mazda6, with which it shares underpinnings, but has been resized for American tastes. It also proves a US automaker can actually create a good interior if it really wants to.

Now if only Ford would turn the same technique on replacing the US Focus...

Price as tested: $20,895 MSRP, or $33/day + tax rental at LAX.

Nicholas Weaver (nweaver@gmail.com)

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Jalopnik Reviews: 2006 Ford Fusion, Part 1 [internal]