Dig through any sales literature on the 2006 Mercury Milan and one point becomes glaringly obvious: Mercury wants its new sedan to stand out as upscale and valuable in one of the market's most aggressive and important segments. This only makes sense. After all, American carmakers have lacked a genuinely competitive midsize sedan for years.

Fortunately, thanks to expansive platform sharing within the Ford family, Mercury has a fundamental good start on its exit from midsize mediocrity. You see, underneath the Milan's pseudo-Italian styling, badges and marketing slant is a Ford Fusion. And underneath the Ford Fusion is a Mazda 6 - the car which sets the dynamic standard for the segment.

The base engine in Mercury's newest front-wheel-drive sedan is a 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder that makes 150 pound-feet of torque. It's backed by a five-speed manual or automatic transmission. But the Milan can be had with a double-overhead-cam 3.0-liter Duratec V6, which is also found in the Mazda 6. Mercury rates its output at 221 hp and 205 lb-ft of torque and matches it exclusively with a six-speed automatic.

Our V6 test car was a top-of-the-line Milan Premier, which comes standard with leather interior, a CD changer and 17-inch wheels and tires. Its base price of $23,495 makes it an undeniable competitor with the Japanese and puts it in the same ballpark as the Koreans in terms of features per dollar.

Although options including traction control, Mercury's eight-speaker Audiophile sound system, the safety and security package and the comfort package took its as-tested price up to $25,200, our test car represents a good value. The safety and security package, which adds front and second-row side curtain airbags and side airbags in the front seats for additional torso protection, is an exceptional buy at just $595 dollars.

The hardware

Underneath, the Milan rides on a Mazda-designed double-wishbone suspension up front with a functionally similar multilink setup in the rear. The chassis, stretched and widened relative to the Mazda 6, has even greater torsional stiffness according to Mercury.

Its rack and pinion steering operates at a relatively quick 16-to-1 ratio (for comparison, Subaru's narrowly focused WRX STi uses an only marginally quicker 15.2-to-1 ratio). Braking is left to four-wheel discs (11.7 inches up front, 10.9 inches in the rear) with ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution.

The look

Catch a glimpse of the Milan's hindquarters from across a parking lot and Mercury's styling does its job. There are some undeniable European - maybe even Italian - elements to its taillights, badging and rear-quarter panels. Trim all around is executed in a satin-aluminum finish which is more subtle and effective in defining the car's proportions than chrome. The 17-inch wheels have 14 spokes which match the trim and the entire treatment is brought together with Mercury's traditional "waterfall" grille.

Mercury matched the Milan's dimensions with its biggest midsize competitor, the Honda Accord. Its length, width, wheelbase and height are all within an inch of the Honda's, and its 15.8-cubic-foot trunk is marginally larger than the Accord's.

Inside, there's two-tone leather seating with stitching that matches the lighter hue. The front seats are as comfortable as they are good-looking. Though not as supportive laterally as we would like, we did find them agreeable on trips up to two hours. With slightly more front headroom and rear legroom than Accord, it's also spacious enough for five.

The satin-aluminum exterior trim is carried through to the dashboard and steering wheel spokes where it surrounds buttons controlling the audio, cruise and interior temperature. The on-dash heater and air-conditioning controls are all buttons which aren't as easy to use as knobs. Temperature and fan speed changes are made with buttons which require patience and redundancy of the hand. Otherwise, the system functions well enough - it even has a simple "off" button unlike many climate control systems.

Dynamic diligence

Navigating the 3,300-pound Milan is a refreshing surprise. It's clear that dynamics and driver interaction were a priority in its design. Most impressive is the steering. Feedback through the wheel is striking as is weight which is unusually heavy for the class.

Responses to inputs are equally notable. Bend the Milan into a 180-degree on-ramp with some fervor and it doesn't surrender in a wail of tire squeal and body roll. Rather, the chassis responds with reasonable feedback from its all-season tires, eventually settling into understeer with manageable balance. The car consistently demonstrated willingness to corner and change directions at speed with enthusiasm.

Ride quality is acceptable especially considering the above-average handling. Expansion joints and high-speed undulations are well damped. We did notice some tramlining on California's rain-grooved freeways, but that's often as much a tire problem as a chassis problem.

Down the road

Since it's hard to criticize any midsize sedan with a V6 that sells for about $23,000, the Milan's powertrain is adequate at this price point. And no other midsize sedan in this range comes with a six-speed automatic. But the engine and transmission don't yield the yin and yang perfection we'd hoped for.

Power is sufficient and the transmission's shift schedule and segue between gears are without fault. However, we'd prefer more gear selection options on the shifter than just "D" (Drive) and "L" (Low). With six gears to choose from it would be nice to have a few more downshift choices. Even an automanual shifter that let us approximate gear selection would be an improvement.

As is, drivers wishing to downshift for engine braking are met with wildly inconsistent response. Drop from "D" to "L" on the freeway in an effort to stay off the brakes and sometimes you'll find a gear that will slow you the desired amount - sometimes you won't.

Although we never did figure out the six-speed's "L" mode logic, the transmission doesn't hunt or jump needlessly between gears. We were hard-pressed to confuse its determined shift methodology even while working the throttle like a monkey on meth.

Mercury also struck a perfect balance in calibrating the car's electronic throttle to work with the transmission. Response just off idle is linear and intuitive, and having six gears makes a difference in livability. The extra gear pays dividends during small changes in throttle position.

By the numbers

The Milan is right on track when it comes to acceleration. Through the quarter-mile it posted a 15.7-second run at 90 mph, hitting 60 in 7.9 seconds. That's 0.3 second quicker to 60 mph and the same quarter-mile time as a V6 Hyundai Sonata, which in LX trim costs exactly the same.

Handling is a Milan strongpoint. Even though its tires limit lateral acceleration to 0.81g on the skidpad, slalom speed is among the best in the segment. The Milan split the cones at 62 mph - better than the last Camry, Accord and Sonata we comparison-tested.

Brake feel doesn't inspire or insult. Step on the pedal, the car stops. Simple. It took the Milan 133.2 feet to stop from 60 mph - about average for its class. The last Honda Accord we tested stopped in 135 feet.

Add up the Milan's rewarding dynamics, sophisticated looks and below-average-with-a-V6 price and there's no denying that it is a serious contender among the midsize players. And if you squint a little, Mercury might even trick you into thinking it's Italian. Bravo.

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