By Mark Elias
Monday, Sep 24th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 

Way back when, the Ford Taurus was the blue oval brand's king. But with the increasingly bloated Taurus now serving as a de facto flagship, Ford figured it was time for the Fusion to up its game.

Take one look at the Fusion and it's obvious that they've delivered - at least in terms of styling. The company is betting the farm on this shapely new four-door sedan. We ventured to Southern California, a market that's anything but a Ford stronghold, to see if this new Fusion is as good as it looks.

Many flavors

A four-door, five-passenger sedan that looks more like a fastback, the new Fusion follows the design language displayed on Ford's EVOS concept car. Swoopy and sexy, it displays the new "face of Ford" that can already be seen on the Taurus, Focus, and Fiesta. Available on the other side of the pond as the Mondeo, it will be built in Ford factories throughout Europe and Asia in addition to Mexico and Michigan for our market. The body features high-waisted side panels with creative folds and even features its own play on BMW's Hofmeister kink at the D-pillar. With design cues from Audi's A7 and Aston Martin's Rapide, it exemplifies imitation as a form of flattery.

Three styles with five forms of propulsion are positioned for a wide variety of needs. Ford has tried to cover all the bases with a hybrid, a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder, 1.6 and 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder engines and the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid. So far, Ford has let us get behind the wheel of the Hybrid and both EcoBoosts. The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder was not available at drive time.

The United Kingdom-sourced 1.6-liter features 178-horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 184 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm. Although a six-speed automatic transmission is available, our test 1.6-liter was mated to a six-speed manual transmission, which displayed good feel for a non high-performance gearbox. Sure gear changes were the order of the day with this slightly longish feeling gearbox, which could see a surprising number of buyers from the enthusiast set.

The EPA rates it at 23/36 mpg for the slushbox and 25/37 mpg for the manual.

Additionally, the 1.6 EcoBoost can be had with an available ($295) auto start/stop system that Ford says helps it realize a 3.5 percent boost in real world fuel economy.

But we soon learned that our time behind the wheel of the 2.0-liter Fusion was the real reason we were here. Seen in everything from the new Ford Escape to the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, the Spain-built four-cylinder is proving its might in nearly every application. Here, it makes 240-horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 270 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm, meaning full twist comes on at a barely breathing mid-point in the powerband. EPA numbers register at 22/32 mpg (31 mpg on the highway with optional all-wheel-drive).

Save for its badging and good driving "leaves" that accumulated on the right side of the speedometer, there was little about the Hybrid's 2.0-liter Atkinson cycle four-cyilnder, permanent magnet AC synchronous motor and CVT to tip drivers off that Reddy Kilowatt was at work. By the numbers, the multi-port fuel injection engine makes 141 horsepower and 129 lb-ft of torque, while the generator adds 118 electric rodeo ponies that produce 117 lb-ft of torque. Using the new math, or the EPA's formula du jour, that combines to make 188 total horsepower. As a bonus, the Hybrid can run on electric-only mode at speeds up to 62 mph. There's lots of numbers flying about, but the one that Ford wants buyers to be aware of is 47--the number the EPA says the Fusion Hybrid gets in city, highway and combined. Those figures blow away any midsize hybrid rival.

Stay tuned - we're already planning a more extensive romp in a Fusion Hybrid.

The 1.6 and 2.0-liter units will, however, be the bread and butter of that lineup. Ford is offering three levels of trim from the entry-level S ($21,700 plus a $795 destination charge) to the mid-grade SE ($23,700) to the range-topping Titanium ($30,200). Not all trims offer every engine, but it's worth noting that the base S is 2.5-only, while the Titanium is exclusively available with the 2.0.

Techno-assists abound as well, with the availability of a lane keeping system, adaptive cruise control with forward-looking radar to slow the car in an impedning crash situation, active parking assistance for parallel parking and a blind spot monitor. Notably, lesser-spec models don't come standard with Ford's controversial MyFord Touch infotainment system.

Inner trappings

The interior of the 2013 Fusion features a totally updated look at the contemporary family sedan. Higher spec models feature twin 4.5-inch programmable screens to display trip and audio information, while a three-spoke steering wheel contains all the right redundant controls.

What the interior lacked was sound intrusion into the cabin. An active noise cancellation system quelled extraneous noise at bay during our time on Los Angeles' aggressively loud highways.

Soft touch materials on the doors, dashboard and center console class up the joint. Supportive front seats proved comfortable, but it was the surprisingly spacious rear seat that impressed us the most, even if the sharp roofline does hamper ingress and egress. Our favorite interior was covered with leather seating surfaces, but the Hybrid featured material that appears to be spun from recycled soda bottles. In this case, green is good, but not great.

Creative packaging was also seen in the Hybrid's trunk. Newer-tech lithium-ion batteries take up less space, which meant that Ford engineers were able to offer a pass-through to the back seat for longer cargo.

Road-tested

Like Hyundai, Kia and Chevrolet, Ford has discovered that four is the new six. Ford's 1.6 and 2.0-liter EcoBoost engines were perfectly suited along Mulholland Highway and Topanga Canyon Roads, where grades of 8 percent were the norm. We never felt underpowered in either when climbing hills or passing slower traffic. The manual transmission mated to the 1.6 offered good gear selection for the varying road conditions, while the paddle shift levers of the 2.0's six-speed automatic helped keep the motivation and fun levels high. We're anxious to sample the 1.6-liter automatic, however, since it could wind up being the highest volume model given its price point.

Regardless of engine, all Fusions include MacPherson struts up front and an independent multi-link kit out back. While that setup is pretty conventional, it was the electric power steering which impressed us with its good, not overly-boosted feel that was just what we wanted to see while tearing through the tight canyon curves. The traction-adding Fusion all-wheel-drive felt even more planted, but the front-driver was nonetheless a solid ride.

Leftlane's bottom line

Good looks, performance and quality make the Fusion more of a contender than ever, although a fully loaded Titanium model can come with a rather cheeky price tag.

Stick with a modestly-optioned Fusion SE and you'll find what we figure is the sweet spot of this awfully impressive lineup. If this isn't 2013's most-improved new car, we're not sure what is.

2013 Ford Fusion base price range, $21,700 to $32,200.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.