By Andrew Ganz
Saturday, Dec 13th, 2008 @ 12:01 am
 
A product renaissance at Ford Motor Company is under way. Ten years ago, a thorough re-engineering of a volume seller after just three years on the market would have been seen as conspicuous consumption in Dearborn. But in late 2008, with so much riding on the automaker's future product portfolio, the blue oval crew has released a heavily revised Fusion for the most difficult and competitive place in the market.



What is it?
Introduced for 2006, the first generation Fusion was a late-arriving replacement for the ill-fated Contour "world car." Fusion rides on Ford's impressive CD3 platform, which was co-developed with Mazda, and it also sold as the nearly identical Mercury Milan and the luxury-equipped Lincoln MKZ.

Ford pushed forward a substantially upgraded, though not entirely redesigned Fusion for 2010, moving it way ahead in the automaker's normal product development cycle. When it goes in sale in late March, most buyers won't realize that this is really Fusion version 1.5, not 2.0. Different from the A-pillar forward, the C-pillar back, inside, underneath and under hood, the '10 Fusion shares only its basic structure and door shells with the '06-'09 model.

Fusion is available in five flavors - base S, volume SE, premium SEL, Sport and Hybrid. We've taken a look at three automatic transmission-equipped models, a four-cylinder SEL, a six-cylinder SEL and a Sport.

What's it up against?
The Fusion competes in the most heated segment of the market. Few manufacturers don't play in the midsize sedan arena. Ford bills the Fusion as a bit more athletic than class leader Toyota Camry, so we'd pit it up against the Honda Accord, the Mazda Mazda6 (which shares its CD3 platform and powertrains with the Fusion), the Subaru Legacy, the Nissan Altima, the Volkswagen Passat and CC and, proudly waving the red, white and blue, the Chevrolet Malibu.

Any breakthroughs?
Fusion is available with the widest range of powerplants in its class - all of which are mated to six-speed transmissions. In an era of simplifying, Ford has pulled out all the stops and offered a Fusion for every family.

We'll cover the fuel-sipping Fusion Hybrid in a separate report; this review serves as a basic overview of the other three power plants, which range from a 175-horse 2.5-liter four-cylinder (mated to either a manual or automatic), to a 240-horse 3.0-liter V6 all the way up to the range-topping 263-horse 3.5-liter V6 (Sport only).

Ford offers all-wheel-drive with either V6 engine, a fairly unique feature for this class that's bound to gain it some market share in wintry climates.

How does it look?
Classy. Unlike previous applications of Ford's three-bar chrome grille, the Fusion doesn't look as much like a rolling advertisement for Gillette. Its front fascia, with optional chrome details and standard projector-beam headlamps, looks like it's something straight out of Ford's European product portfolio. We're especially fond of the thin chrome strips that surround the lower grille and fog lamp openings, as well as the subtle power dome-style hood.

Viewed from the side, the previous generation doors are somewhat at odds with the modern front, but if you didn't park the '10 next to its predecessor, you'd likely never know it. Ford does a much nicer job disguising length than General Motors does with the Malibu.

Out back, the Fusion gets new tail lamps, a bumper with simulated diffuser and a trunk-integrated third brake light. Our only kvetch is the excessively busy trunk lid. With a series of odd bulges, a chrome lip, the third brake light and the obligatory badging (which doesn't include an engine size badge, thus bound to confound salesmen everywhere), there's just too much going on.

Unlike nearly all of its rivals, wheels are standard across the line, ranging from 16s on the base S up to 18s on the Sport.

And on the inside?
Ford aimed for a simple, upscale look, and the automaker mostly succeeds. The overall effect is understated but contemporary with lots of corporate parts bin materials. If you've been in a 2008 or newer Ford, you'll recognize the center stack components, a myriad of small, nearly identical buttons that are difficult to discern at first glance. Isn't this what automakers were trying to get away from just a few years ago? We don't find the design objectionable, we just question what's better: Sensory overload or the sparse look of few buttons. At least the new parts bin switches and knobs operate with precision, unlike the clunky old systems Ford relied on forever.

We found the seats and driving position to be just right. A standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel and an eight-way power driver's seat in all but the base model meant we never had a tough time dialing in a comfortable position. The driver has a better view out than before thanks to a third brake lamp that migrated away from the rear parcel shelf. Fusion's door sills are just the right height to avoid the bathtub feel we occasionally get in the Malibu and Camry.

Suddenly the bean counters are listening to the buyers - or at least the media - because "improved interior materials" is the season's buzz phrase. Fusion gets it right - the combination of textures is pleasing throughout and generally upscale. With few exceptions, every surface is covered in an expensive-feeling, soft-touch material. A flimsy dash-top bin and a rickety coin holder mounted just left of the steering column stand out as the only cheap touches in an interior that is both more inviting and more interesting than the Camry and Accord.

Import shoppers won't be disappointed by the high feature content, which seems almost early-2000s Korean in its comprehensiveness on top-end models. The SEL luxury model features dual-zone automatic climate control, Ford's Microsoft-developed Sync system, heated leather seats and options like a 12-speaker Sony audio system, a blind spot warning system cribbed from Volvo and a rearview mirror-mounted compass.

Fusion's interior isn't class-leading; we'll give that nod to the typically Germanic Volkswagens. Yet it's a well thought out, convenient design that, over time, makes you feel comfortably at home - and it's a marked improvement over the rather mediocre inner trappings of its predecessor.

But does it go?
In previous encounters with the first generation Fusion, we were impressed with its tossable nature, but we were turned off by its coarse, bouncy ride. Boy, have things changed.

No longer does the Fusion react poorly to dips and swells in lumpy pavement; the new model is poised and composed even when pushed to the limit. In around-town driving, the suspension delivers a luxury car ride that's neither too harsh nor too plush. Ford achieved this with mere fine tuning; the basic design is a carry-over from the 2009. A heavily revised front sway bar and a thicker rear sway bar improve cornering grip without any trade-offs in ride quality.

In order to save a little fuel, Ford has made electric power steering standard across the line, except on the Sport model, where buyers will find a traditional hydraulic system. We're still not totally sold on having ones and zeros tell the front wheels what to do, but Ford has done a nice job of disguising the inherent limitations of a hydraulics-free system. There's a little hesitation just off center, road feel seems simulated and we occasionally caught the system playing catch-up with resistance, but in the sort of driving most Fusions will encounter, the electric system is acceptable.

It should come as no surprise that the Sport model proved to be the most fun to drive. It offers tire-spinning power accompanied by a growling soundtrack. Ford told us not to expect the EcoBoost version of this engine under the hood of any Fusion any time soon, but we aren't sure we believe them. That said, this mythical high-performance Fusion will absolutely need all-wheel-drive; the Sport's 263 ponies way overpower the front wheels.

Ford set up a nice autocross course to show off the Fusion's handling; but what it best illustrated was that the Sport is positively overpowered for a front-wheel-drive vehicle. We were able to get our best autocross times out of the entry-level four-cylinder.

That four-banger is not only more powerful and more refined than its 0.2-liter-smaller predecessor, it's more efficient. Ford predicts a rather wild 6 mpg gain on the highway, putting it at a class-leading 34 mpg or more, pending EPA testing. That gain comes as a result of engine and aero tuning, as well as an in-house-developed six-speed automatic transmission. The six-speed fired off smooth shifts but hunted for gears under aggressive driving. Again, most Fusions won't see an autocross course, so we think it's a great on-road setup.

The midlevel powertrain is 240-horse 3.0-liter V6, a modified version of the outgoing motor. It doesnt endow the Fusion with the robust performance you'd expect out of 240 horsepower - leave that for the Sport - but it possesses satisfactory mid-range grunt and emits a refined engine note.

Why you would buy it:
A stylish, pleasant-driving, comfortable four-door is on your wish list. Or, you're interested in driving the most fuel efficient vehicle in the most competitive segment of the market.

Why you wouldn't:
You have an outdated phobia of Detroit-badged cars.

Leftlane's bottom line
Fusion is finally a stand-out in this incredibly crowded class. If any volume vehicle is going to help pull Ford out of the doldrums and into the mainstream again, it's this car. The challenge, of course, will be winning over Camry and Accord buyers. Fusion offers a pleasing blend of sport and comfort with a number of upscale touches and a unique style. It's at least as refined and as well screwed together as the Toyota and it's nearly as athletic as the Honda. Ford should be proud of this one - it's not quite a grand slam smacked out of the ballpark (and through the windshield of a Camry in the parking lot), but it's definitely a solid home run.

2009 Ford Fusion base prices:
S, $19,270; SE, $20,545; SEL, $23,975; Sport, $25,828.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.