Friday, February 26, 2010

Ford Fusion is Part of Ford's Good Vibes

There’s been plenty of good news for Ford Motor Company despite the horrible auto market. Not only did the company manage to avoid bankruptcy and government bailout money, but the company has some great cars to sell. The Fusion is one of them.

The midsized Fusion sedan, introduced in 2006, competes directly with the enormously popular Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. American products have struggled in this contest historically, but for 2010, Ford focused on improving any areas that will enhance the Fusion’s status with car buyers.

First of all, they burnished curb appeal with a carefully orchestrated restyle. The changes include a domed hood, more dramatic headlamps and a grander version of the chrome three-bar look offered in the first release of the car. The rear features more elaborately rendered taillamps and detailing, which is part of an overall car industry trend.

Drivers actually spend the bulk of their time behind the wheel, and here Ford paid attention and applied worthwhile upgrades. The dash features padded panels in place of hard plastic and the wheel wears a soft leather cover. The gauges are upgraded to a jewel-like quality with bright “ice blue” lighting. The instrument panel welcomes you with a little sequence that includes sweeping needles and a friendly greeting.

The seats, often a weak spot in American vehicles, have been recontoured, with more side support. The armrests are nicely padded. The shifter is redesigned. It’s a long list of upgrades.
Quiet has been a selling point of luxury cars for decades, and the engineers also attacked this area in the 2010 Fusion. An acoustic windshield, thicker door glass, and revised insulation in the hood, dash, trunk and headliner, along with better body and door sealing, make the Fusion whisper quiet. That improves the perception of quality and also makes for more relaxed freeway cruising.

The Fusion comes in several levels, from the entry S to the well-equipped SEL. It also offers a Sport version and a new Hybrid model. My test car was a Sterling Gray Metallic SEL.
The S, SE and SEL come standard with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 175 horsepower—an improvement over last year’s 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four. My tester was upgraded to the 3.0-liter Duratec V6, with 240 horsepower. That’s enough to make the 3.400-pound car a strong competitor with the V6 Camry/Accord—on regular gas.

The Sport model uses a 3.5-liter V6 that puts out 265 horsepower. That places the Fusion into competition with a wider range of cars, and could even tempt buyers of more upscale vehicles who have an open mind about the badge on their trunk lid.

The four-cylinder engine, which comes with a manual six-speed in the S model, earns a respectable 23 City, 34 Highway with the six-speed automatic (slightly better than with the manual!). The V6 is rated at 18 /27, with automatic only. I averaged 22.7 mpg.

The EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide gives the four-cylinder a 7 for both Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution scores. The V6 drops to a 7 and a 5.

The Fusion proved to be a good driver in town and for commuting. Engineers made numerous improvements in the 2010 model’s steering, handling and brake pedal feel. I felt engaged with the car. The electric power steering had a good heft to it and assistance varied depending on speed, so parking lot maneuvering felt different from freeway cruising.

The Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) with Cross Traffic Alert identifies when a vehicle enters the defined blind spot zone on either side of your car and illuminates a light on the corresponding side-view mirror; it makes an audible alert too. The system also can provide extra confidence to drivers in parking lots by alerting them sooner of nearby traffic while backing out.

I had a few minor issues with the interior. The textures of the hard and soft plastics were not perfectly matched. The console is home to many buttons, which despite their attractive new look were sometimes a long reach, which forced me to take my eyes off the road to make climate control and seat heater selections. The highly regarded SYNC system had trouble connecting to my iPod. And an electronic voice periodically interrupted my enjoyment of the Sirius satellite radio to ask if I wanted a Vehicle Health Report.

Prices start at $19,995 for the S with manual transmission and no extras. The likely volume-selling SEL starts at $24,700. My SEL, with V6 and a package full of goodies, including audio upgrade, moonroof and the BLIS system came to $28,105.

Motor Trend named the Fusion as its 2010 Car of the Year. Sales are up. In a stormy time, it’s a ray of sunshine. And Ford has more coming soon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ten Reasons Why I Love the Nissan Cube

For some people, boxy is cool. The Scion Xb introduced Americans to this phenomenon six years ago, and today you have a choice. But the Nissan Cube, recently brought to the U.S. after a popular run in Japan, is something special. Here are ten reasons I love it.

1. It’s cute – The Cube is filled with amusing styling quirks, most notable the asymmetrical rear windows – pillar on the left, glass on the right. Inside, there’s a ripple motif on the ceiling and speaker vents, and outside, on the rear window pillars. There’s a whimsical (optional) circle of shag carpet on the dash. The sill plates light up with block “C U B E” letters in blue. The seat upholstery and carpets wear a wave pattern that, combined with the curved dash indent on the passenger side, give the pleasant sensation of sitting in a Jacuzzi.

2. It’s economical - I averaged 28.2 mpg in mixed driving – great for a nonhybrid. The EPA rates it 28 mpg City, 30 mpg Highway. A surprisingly peppy 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine puts out 122 horsepower and 127 lb.-ft. of torque. My tester’s continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) outscored the five-speed manual, which rates 24 City/29 Highway. CVTs use bands rather than gears, so they are always in the torque sweet spot.

3. It’s green – The EPA Green Vehicle Guide gives the Cube a Smartway designation, reflecting its scores of 6 for Air Pollution and 8 for Greenhouse Gas with the CVT. The manual transmission version not only gets lower fuel economy scores, but drops to 6/7 on the Green scores. Manual transmissions may no longer be the best way to go for vehicles that aren’t out-and-out sports cars.

4. It’s inexpensive – Prices start at $14,710 for the base 1.8 model, including shipping. Even this car offers air conditioning, power windows and locks, an AM/FM/CD system and antilock brakes. Moving up to the 1.8 S ($15,410) brings cruise control and premium seat fabric, map lights, chrome inside door handles, steering wheel-mounted controls and body-color outside mirrors. The 1.8 SL ($17,510), like my Caribbean Blue test car, has the CVT transmission, automatic climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels and upgraded audio, among other things. The Krom model ($20,090) goes blingy with special wheels and body add-ons.

5. It carries my stuff – Drop the back seats and the upright bass slides in. I stashed my electric bass and amps under the soft fabric cargo cover, which attaches to the rear seats with Velcro. The rear hatch is hinged on the left and opens like a giant refrigerator door, which reminds me –the Cube’s cargo area holds lots of groceries too.

6. It’s roomy for folks – The back seat slides back for people, forward for added cargo. The split seatbacks recline individually and are nicely supportive. The light gray interior felt airy and open.

7. There’s enormous headroom – The Cube’s shape means a very different motoring experience. The upright windshield is way in front and curves back, giving the feel of a sensually styled delivery van. Big side windows eliminate claustrophobia. Wear your favorite Stetson! One minor issue – the deep sunvisors work great up front but cover only half of the side windows.

8. It’s apparently well made – Considering the price point, the plastics and cloth feel substantial and look well assembled. I heard one plastic squeak in the dash somewhere, but it was only more noticeable because of the hushed sound as you drive the Cube. The leather-wrapped steering wheel, part of the SL Preferred Package ($1,600) conveyed an upscale flavor.

9. It’s fun to drive – The car feels perky in town and stays stable in the corners, thanks in part to an independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars. The CVT delivers maximum torque in all situations so you don’t sense the car shifting gears—just steady power. Freeways at 70 mph are no sweat. The outward visibility and upright seating position impart a feeling of control.

10. It’s got a nice sound system – Even the base car has one, and depending on model, it may include steering wheel controls, speaker upgrades with a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer in the tailgate and a USB port for your iPod. My test car was so quiet on the freeway that I got to enjoy my CDs, plugged-in iPod, broadcast AM/FM and Sirius XM satellite radio on my routine commute.

That’s the top ten. Another consideration is safety—the Cube offers the Nissan Advanced Air Bag System, with front, side and roof-mounted curtain airbags. A Traction Control System and Vehicle Dynamic Control are standard, and security and immobilizer systems keep it safe from theft.

The Cube won Design of the Year from Automobile magazine (January 2010 issue). So it’s not just me who’s smitten.