Comeback kids

2006, Mercury, Milan Premium

Seismic shifts are rumbling under the big-tent, multi-division automakers Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. There's a lot of duplicate production (aka overcapacity) associated with these guys. Clearly, something's gotta give. GM, for one, finally acknowledged reality a few years ago by giving the 100-year-old Oldsmobile Division the axe, since there was nothing left even remotely exclusive to this brand.

Pontiac is another GM division in search of a relevant 21st-century identity. (Buick, Saturn and GMC, too, if brutal honesty will be countenanced.) Ford's straggler is Mercury, invariably recognized as purveyor of spiffed-up Fords with extra curlicues and pricing.

If the agenda for this column could credibly embrace socio-economics and poly-sci, the Tar Baby that is American automobile manufacturing would make a doozy of a subject. Imagine a drama with so many protagonists: prominent executives on gilt retainers; powerful unions with iron-clad wages and benefits; millions of shareholders thirsty for dividends; family dealerships impersonating feudal princelings; special-interest activists making gravity-defying environmental/safety/fuel-efficiency demands; hapless customers parrying rising prices; and opportunist politicos exploiting every grievance of every above-named constituency. There's enough combustible material herein to ignite a Bonfire of the Minivanities.

Alas, it's all a subject for another space, another time. For the nonce, suffice it to point out that both Ford and GM are in the midst of rejuvenation campaigns for their moribund Mercury and Pontiac divisions, respectively. By way of illustration, two new, directly competitive models-the Mercury Milan and Pontiac G6 sedan-are conveniently representative not only of their corporate parents' short-term tactics but also of what's at stake long-term in a global auto market with too many choices.

It's interesting to ponder the new-for-2006 Mercury Milan side-by-side the new-for-2005 Pontiac G6 sedan. Both Pontiac and Mercury brands target a slightly more upscale and sporty clientele than their respective corporate siblings Chevrolet and Ford. Both of these new compact sedans are conveniently timed to appear when fuel-efficiency and tidy vehicle sizes have become important customer preferences. And both, as ever, share platforms with other models within their corporate families-but this time, with a global twist.

Sure, the Milan is a clone of the new Ford Fusion, but both are derived from the Mazda6, made by that most European-flavored of all Japanese automakers. The G6, for its part, shares guts and glory with the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, but both in turn represent North American iterations of the Europe-inspired "Epsilon" platform underlying Saab, Vauxhall and Opel models.

It's a safe bet that any car dubbed Milan craves a European association in the minds of its owners. The Milan does a good job of living up to this pretension. Exterior styling is a bit sedate, but refined nonetheless; and interior treatments are indeed quite British or Germanic, owing to Ford's important presence in both of those markets. Somewhere between Volkswagen's Jetta and Passat, or within a shadowy alter ego of an Audi A4, the Mercury Milan manages a credible impersonation of a sophisticated sedan from somewhere NATO-esque.

Milan features two powertrains: a 2.3-liter twin-cam four making 160 horsepower and a 3.0-liter "Duratec" V6 (featured here) making 221 hp. The former comes standard with a five-speed manual or optional five-speed auto; the latter with an elegant six-speed auto only. Fuel economy finally comes to terms with the real world. The four-cylinder achieves 23 mpg/city, 31 mpg/highway; the V6 posts 21/29, respectively.

My tester, in "Premium" trim, represented the top-of-the-line Milan, costing $24,845 with $2,000 worth of options that included side and head airbags. A base Milan starts at $18,995. Aside from the significant power differential, both Milan set-ups regale drivers with crisp handling and sure, four-wheel-disc braking. The six-speed transmission is sumptuously smooth, although it lacks sophistication in manual shifts.

Mercury's Milan is a credible Euro-pretender and a pleasant surprise at that. It is, perhaps, more Brooks Brothers than Saville Row; but within a Mercury reputation for lackluster goods, it's tailored to impress.

Pontiac's new G6, previously reviewed here in both coupe and sedan iterations, benefits immensely from the context of a comparison with Mercury Milan. More genuinely European in its pedigree, the G6 sedan is yet more thoroughly North American in its expression. It is, just the same, a worthy rival to its Mercury counterpart.

In contrast to a fully equipped Milan, the G6 tested here was the base model with 2.4-liter twin-cam four making 167 hp and posting 23 mpg/city and 34 mpg/highway. Two different V6 motors are also available: a 3.5-liter, making 201 hp; and a 3.9-liter, rated 240 hp. Across the line, G6 pricing matches Milan's very closely. The tester here totaled $19,990 as-tested, without optional side/head airbags; whereas the G6 line-up as a whole reaches from $17,990 to $24,835. Milan ranges from $18,995 to $23,495.

The G6 driving feel is a bit lighter on the feet, so to speak, but a bit less solid and precise than that of Milan. The Pontiac's interior appointments are also a bit more generic looking, but admirably functional and convenient just the same.

By far, the biggest difference between G6 and Milan is exploitation of interior space. Outside, the G6 is shorter overall, yet with a five-inch longer wheelbase; and its trunk is 14 cubic feet, compared with almost 16 cubic feet for Milan. In terms of head, hip, shoulder and legroom for occupants, however, Milan is roomier throughout. Only with front head and rear leg room does G6 prevail, and then only by 0.3 inch and 0.6 inch, respectively.

If Milan is stately, G6 is spunky; and both cars represent important U.S. responses to the desire of American motorists to downsize and wise-up about car selections. If more than a little of that wisdom is Japanese and European in origin, why not reward good advice whatever its accent?

4-door, 5-pass.; 2.4-liter DOHC inline-4; FWD, 4-sp. auto; 167 hp/162 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 34 mpg/hwy w/ regular; trunk: 14 cu. ft.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/1CD/XM audio, 16-in. wheels, 60/40 rear seatback; base: $18,865; as-tested: $19,990

4-door, 5-pass.; 3.0-liter DOHC "Duratec" V6 w/ vvt; FWD, 6-sp. auto; 221 hp/205 ft.-lbs.; 21 mpg/city, 29 mpg/hwy w/ regular; trunk: 15.8 cu. ft.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/6CD audio, 17-in. wheels, split rear seatback; base: $22,845; as-tested: $24,845

By Marc Stengel

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