Monday, January 21, 2013

Ford Fusion - A Beautiful New Start

Ford's new Fusion takes its place as a milestone vehicle for the company. Much like the 1949 smooth-sided post-war triumph and the 1986 Taurus, this car sets the tone for the future.

The Fusion, as a midsize sedan, has its work cut out for it, battling the longtime favorites the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, not to mention the ascendant Hyundai Sonata, redone Chevrolet Malibu, and a renewed Nissan Altima. But the Ford is a truly beautiful car, and that is one way to differentiate yourself in this segment.

The Fusion arrived in 2005 when as a 2006 model, it took over the role of the old Taurus, which had run its cycle. The Fusion bore the look of Fords of its day, with clean but uninspiring lines. After some styling excesses in the late 1990s Ford was understandably cautious. A 2010 restyling of the ends and dash earned the Fusion a Motor Trend Car of the Year trophy. But the 2013 is all new.

Look at that Aston Martin grille. That's a theme working its way through the Ford line, along with shrunken oval logos and squinting headlamps. The handsome exterior, with its folds, athleticism and edginess, comes from the European styling studios, and aligns with the New Focus and Fiesta--and the resurgent Taurus. Ford is leveraging its models worldwide now more than ever, and we are benefiting from this here in the U.S.

The interior of the new Fusion is as enthusiastic as the exterior. Especially notable are the silvery plastic trim pieces, which define the dash and the doors in a way unthinkable in the sober old car. The instrument panel is configurable, and I took advantage to show things like fuel economy on the left and my entertainment selections on the right. When you use the Bluetooth phone connection it displays the caller's name and number there, too. It's what we expect now--more personalization.

The dash has touch-sensitive controls for the climate system. You have to be careful not to accidentally touch one and change your settings. Also, it requires careful finger placement, which could take your eyes off the road. One way to avoid that is to use the SYNC system, which works on voice commands. It can be very effective or make annoying or even hilarious mistakes, but I did use the system to dial a friend by simply asking the system to "Dial Bob Smith" and it worked. It's a Star Trek user experience for today.

The new Fusion is the first car to offer three different power choices--a standard gasoline engine (in three sizes), a hybrid, and a brand new plug-in hybrid called the Energi. I was able to sample the first two--a Ginger Ale Metallic SE with the 16-liter Ecoboost engine and an "Ice Storm" Hybrid. While they looked very much alike on the outside, the experience with them was a bit different.

The SE employs Ford's latest EcoBoost engine technology. This means that a 3,400-pound car is powered by an engine displacing only 1.6 liters. That sounds like it belongs in a subcompact hatchback,  but with the EcoBoost enhancements (providing 178 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque) it was actually just fine. The goal of EcoBoost is to improve overall fuel economy by using a smaller engine to get the same performance as a larger engine. The engine in my tester was hooked to a six-speed automatic, but the SE is also available with an optional six-speed manual. I would like to sample one someday.

The other two models in the standard gas lineup include the S model, which features a traditional 2.5 liter inline four-cylinder, which, though larger, puts out 3 fewer horsepower than the 1.6 (and 9 fewer lb.-ft. of torque. Such is the power of EcoBoost to get more out of less.

The Platinum, top-of-the-line Fusion, uses a 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder, which churns out a robust 240 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque, making it the rocket of the group. Sadly, you can't equip it with the six-speed manual (yet). That would be a great one to match against some European sport sedans.

My SE had automatic shutoff when I stopped at a light. That helps improve fuel economy, and is a new technology in the U.S. With all that, I earned 22.0 miles per gallon--decent, but not quite the 23 City, 36 Highway EPA numbers Ford boasts.

The Hybrid Fusion enjoys all the look and feel of the standard cars, but offers a proven hybrid platform. It has been popular in the old Fusion, and I was able to get 37.1 miles per gallon from my test car. This is remarkable compared to the standard car--but also in being significantly lower than the 47 City, 47 Highway and 47 Average claimed by Ford's EPA tests. Apparently other testers, including the buff magazines, have had similar results.

The Hybrid offers some extra fun with its configurable instrument panel. Choose from four levels of  small graphs that indicated gasoline usage, electricity use and generation, and much more. You can also see how much energy is "recovered" from the regenerative braking system. On the right side of the panel, the Efficiency Leaves display grows greenery when you drive efficiently--and the leaves flutter away when you don't (or can't), such as when accelerating uphill on the freeway. Driving on mostly electric power in commute traffic fills them back in. It's "gamification," but it's effective in influencing your driving behavior--if you pay attention.

The Hybrid is heavier, and feels more planted on the road, but loses four cubic feet of trunk space from the presence of the extra batteries. On the freeway, it was able to run in EV electric only mode at up to 62 miles per hour -- a bump from 47 mph in the old car. With its comfortable seats and silent powertrain, the Hybrid was a very pleasant commuter.

When you shut off the Hybrid, it tells you how many of the miles on your trip were as an EV--when you were driving with the engine off. I found that overall, it was about a third of the time, but in town, around half of the time. Like other hybrids, this dual powertrain is especially effective in city or bumper-to-bumper commute travel, since the gas engine shuts off so frequently, and when you're sitting still, neither petroleum nor electrons are consumed.

Pricing varies significantly for the Fusion. The S model starts at just $22,495 and the Titanium, with its leather interior, automatic climate control, greater power, larger wheels, upgraded audio system, and other extras, starts at $30,995. My SE, with the Luxury Package, Technology Package, Driver Assist Package, and more, came to $30,975. Other than having the 1.6-liter engine, it was practically a Titanium as equipped. All prices included shipping charges.

The Hybrid, sold in SE level only, starts at 27,995.

The new Fusion is tremendously impressive, and with its range of choices can provide affordable family transportation, environmental responsibility, and, loaded up as the Titanium, something approaching a luxury ride. It's more than just another pretty face, and from what Ford has been saying and doing, you can expect to see continuing improvement and innovation from Ford's midsize competitor.


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