Happiness (and misery) is a stick-shift Mercury Milan

Mercury Milan Jack Baruth

“Are you still interested in the Milan?” Wait… when did I say I was interested in the Milan? Come to think of it, when did I say that I was interested in any Milan? 

I took a second look at the sender of the email I was reading. Cue the Wayne’s World flashback: Eleven years ago, a friend of mine bought two—count ‘em, TWO—base-equipment 2008 Mercury Milan sedans from a local dealer. He paid rock-bottom rates for the pair because they had five-speed manual transmissions. His plan was to give one of them to each of his children. At the time, I said something offhanded like, “When you’re ready to sell one, I’ll buy it.” Eleven years later, here he was, calling my bluff.

After some back-and-forth about the terms of sale, I became the owner of a dirty-white Milan with a little bit of surface rust, 127K miles on the clock, and an odd interior scent that has defied any and all attempts to eliminate it. I suspect that it comes from the degradation of the carpet padding or the seat foam. My spouse, who just took delivery of a 30th Anniversary Edition Miata and has no time for my used-trash antics, calls it “the Milan smell.” The odor transfers to clothing and skin in moments, and it requires serious measures to remove.

Fittingly for a vehicle with such an international moniker—although my co-workers claim that it is actually named after the hamlet of Milan, Michigan—this mid-sized Mercury has a true global pedigree. It was a Mazda platform, dolled up for Stateside consumption and assembled in Hermosillo, Mexico. Some of the materials used for the interior are quite nice; others have disintegrated or distorted over time, particularly where they are exposed to the sun. No contemporaneous Honda or Toyota displays this kind of fragility after just 11 years of service; I’ve been in 500K-mile Camry taxicabs which looked newer and fresher than this one-owner, by-the-book-maintained Mercury.

Mercury Milan
Jack Baruth

Everyone I know has made tremendous fun of me for buying this car. The cruelest among them have pointed out that when the Milan was built and delivered, I was daily-driving a matched pair of Volkswagen Phaetons. The last fellow to have this kind of fall from grace during his career was named Lucifer. Other people just note that I have a nearly-new Lincoln MKT Reserve Elite in the driveway, and a Porsche 993 in the garage ahead of that; given the other options, why would I drive the Milan anywhere at all, much less cover the 6300 miles I’ve put on the thing since the beginning of August?

The reason is simple, even if it’s hard to believe: This is a great car. As a 2002 Mazda 6 in drag, it hails from that oh-so-brief Golden Age of automobiles after computer-controlled fuel injection and modern safety standards but before the catastrophic bloat that affects virtually all of today’s showroom stock. The 2.3-liter Duratec-aka-MZR four-banger makes just 160 horsepower and the transmission has just five forward gears, but it keeps up with traffic easily, revving with a timid but cultured snarl I recall from my days campaigning the same engine in NASA’s Spec Focus race class. 

The Milan is no bigger than it needs to be in order to provide reasonable comfort for five people and their luggage. Visibility is outstanding. Control efforts are light, but the steering is hydraulic-assist, not electric. It was delivered to me on four oblong and thoroughly unbalanced tires from two different manufacturers; consequently, I asked Yokohama if I could test its new iceGUARD(™) IG53. These are dedicated winter tires, but they’ve just had to endure heavy rain and a light dusting of snow. So far, they’re outstanding in cold weather. We will see how they do when a foot of powder falls on the Hagerty home office in Traverse City. Stay tuned, because I’m going to leave my 4×4 Silverado in the driveway all winter so I can be a human guinea pig for the iceGUARD(™). 

Even on winter tires, the Milan handles remarkably well. The seats are low to the ground. Between the tidy proportions, the clued-in suspension, and the stick-shift transmission, this Mercury kinda-sorta feels like a sports car—particularly after I’ve spent time in any of the modern 4500-pound SUVs that dominate today’s car market. As with the 1977 Accord on its debut, the Milan feels sporty not because it’s actually sporty, but rather because everything else on the road has become an enormous blue whale on wheels. Much like that first-gen Accord, the Milan boasts a low cowl and large greenhouse to add a sense of immediacy to the proceedings.

Mercury Milan
Jack Baruth

The Aston-Martin-esque Fusion which replaced this car is a lovely vehicle, and quite upscale, but it is a much bigger, duller, and slower-witted thing in comparison, with bank-vault doors that come up to one’s shoulders and a cliff-face dashboard that obscures a serious percentage of the road ahead. The crossovers and SUVs which truly replaced the Fusion and Milan in American driveways are even worse. If you’ve spent the last year of your life piloting a Pilot, or traversing in a Traverse, or listening to John Coltrane in an Equinox, this stick-shift 2008 Mercury might as well be a Lotus Evora 410 Sport. Did I mention that it gets 29.3 miles per gallon at 80 miles per hour, even though the little Duratec is spinning at 3500 rpm?

Our relationship has not been without its challenges. After more than a decade’s worth of abuse, the original-equipment clutch is hugely grabby and unpleasantly reminiscent of the four-puck SPEC racing clutch in my 2.4-liter-swapped SCCA Plymouth Neon. Part of my purchase deal included a first-rate component stereo system, much of which was stolen from the Milan’s trunk earlier this week. Without 650 watts’ worth of early Michael Franks albums to distract me, the mechanical and background noise of the Milan have proven to be a bit, ah, substantial. Last but not least, the tired old Duratec is burning oil at the rate of perhaps a quart and a half per thousand miles. 

I intend to lean in on these particular issues. The partially-stolen stereo is being renewed, at unjustifiable expense. A new set of door seals all the way ’round would go a long way towards fixing the interior noise; how expensive could they be? Come springtime, I’ll see about putting some new bushings under the car. Last but certainly not least… there is Project Two-and-a-Half. I’ll explain.

They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that must be why Ford chose to provide manual-transmission-oriented Milan customers with a 2.5-liter, 173-horsepower Duratec for model years 2010 and ’11. This mighty mill was joined to a six-speed manual transmission, an innovation which had only recently appeared in the 1992 Dodge Viper. As a former holder of an FIA “International B” race license, I feel that I am borderline qualified to handle this sort of machinery on the public highway—and it’s apparently a straight swap. You find a crashed 2010 Ford Fusion six-speed, which is probably very easy due to the sheer power of the thing, you unbolt the entire engine/transmission combo, and you put it in a 2008 Milan. Then you ensure that your last will and testament is up to date before you unleash this beast on your local street racers. Simple as that.

Mercury Milan
Jack Baruth
Mercury Milan
Jack Baruth

All kidding aside, I’ll expect better fuel economy and a slightly more relaxed freeway experience from the extra overdrive gear. The 2.5 is also reputed to be a better engine, which is why my wife is swapping one into her NC-generation MX-5 Cup as we speak. I’ll get the transaxle from her donor car as well, which will be a nice spare to have. 

When all is said and done, I’ll have $6000, or more, tied up in a car that wouldn’t fetch two grand on Craiglist—but as a former Porsche 944 owner, I don’t find that math to be particularly daunting. This is the Goldilocks commuter car, which makes the expenditure worthwhile. Not tinny and annoying like a Civic or Corolla, not porcine and dull like an SUV or modern mid-sizer.

There’s just one frustrating aspect to the whole thing, and it’s this: I’d wager that 95 percent of the people who bought a Camry or Accord in 2008 would have been perfectly happy with this Milan. Maybe even happier, if they liked two-tone beige interiors and decent steering. Unfortunately for Ford, too many people had been burned by the 1978 Zephyr, or underwhelmed by the 1988 Topaz, or driven into mechanic-related debt by the 1996 Mystique, for the 2008 Milan to ever appear on their car-purchasing radar screens. The equity held by the Mercury brand had been squandered over the years until there was nothing left to use on these very nice and fully class-competitive automobiles. 

At the time my Milan was built, Ford had settled on a young actress named Jill Wagner as the face of its Mercury television and print marketing campaigns. “You’ve got to put Mercury on your list!” she would chirp. Great idea, but it was too little, too late. At that point in time, she might as well have turned to the television audience, raised her perfect eyebrows, and asked, as I was:

“Are you still interested in the Milan?”

Mercury Milan
Jack Baruth
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