11/09/05 — Fusion puts Ford back in the game

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Fusion puts Ford back in the game

Ford Fusion (2006)

Not since the once-vaunted Taurus left the building about a decade ago has Ford produced a car capable of going head-to-head in sales with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

Ford once had bragging rights to the best-selling car in America. The Taurus was a ground-breaking aerodynamic sedan when it was introduced in 1986, perhaps the most important vehicle of the decade next to the Chrysler minivans. It soon gained status as the best selling car in America.

Ford Fusion, 2006

It certainly was the most important vehicle of the decade for Ford, which was losing market share in the mid-80s. Taurus single-handily rescued the Blue Oval.

It ushered in the era of the so-called jellybean shape. Its design was copied by virtually all automakers.

Taurus still lives in rental fleets, and more than a quarter million units were sold in 2004. But it has been nearly a decade since it dominated the market, losing its edge in a 1996 redesign that did not resonate with the car-buying public.

Not since the debut of the original Taurus has Ford turned out a mid-sized sedan with the potential to shake up the family sedan segment — until now.

Please welcome the Ford Fusion.

We certainly won’t predict that the Fusion will ever reach the lofty heights of 400,000 sales a year once enjoyed by the Taurus, but it is perhaps the best family sedan that Ford has ever produced, including the original Taurus.

We are not here to tell you that the Fusion is superior to the Camry, which sold 427,000 units in 2004, or the Accord, which racked up 387,000 sales.

What we came away with after a week behind the wheel of a top-of-the-line Fusion SEL was admiration for Ford, which has created a sedan that can compete on equal footing with the Japanese brands and with the all-new and highly praised Hyundai Sonata.

It’s hard to ask for more in the hotly contested segment.

Ironically, the Fusion has got more “foreign” in it than the three aforementioned nameplates, which are all built in the United States.

The Fusion is assembled in Mexico and rides on the Mazda6 platform.

To set the table, the Fusion is virtually the same size as the Camry and Accord, an inch longer than the Camry and an inch shorter than the Accord at 190.2 inches on a wheelbase — 107.4 inches — that is nearly identical to the Japanese benchmarks. Curb weight is also within 50 pounds — heavier than the Camry but lighter than the Accord at 3,452 pounds.

The Fusion can be purchased in base form with a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine generating 160 horsepower mated to either a 5-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic transmission. A 221-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 is available on the SE and SEL trim levels mated to a first-in-class 6-speed automatic.

Forget the statistics for a minute and take a test drive.

The Fusion has an European demeanor, heavy and substantial. It feels terrifically stable and well planted. The steering is not American-car light. It has excellent responsiveness and excellent on-center feel.

The one downside we noticed almost immediately in a parking lot is that the turning radius is too wide — about 39 feet. You won’t slip right into a tight spot without perhaps backing and coming in again.

The 6-speed automatic has a fluid, nearly seamless shift. And the tip-in point is more on the European side of the equation, virtually eliminating jackrabbit starts for the heavier of foot.

More than once over the past couple of years we wished that Ford would add more horses to its sedan engines. And so it is with the Fusion. But the Fusion with 221 steeds and 205 pound-feet of torque, performs well enough that you soon forget about the published output and enjoy the actual driving experience with power coming in a steady stream through the gears.

For comparison purposes, the V-6 will propel the sedan from 0 to 60 in 7.4 seconds and complete a quarter mile in 15.7 seconds at 91 miles per hour, according to published statistics. That’s slightly faster than the Camry and almost a second slower than the Accord.

Perhaps the trump card here is gas mileage. The Fusion V-6 has a solid rating of 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 highway.

Thankfully, Ford has deviated from the friendly confines of ultra-conservative styling — check out the Ford Five Hundred — and decided to take some chances. The result is pleasing to the eye. Three prominent horizontal chrome grille bars and rectangular projector-beam headlights give the Fusion a front-end like no other in the segment.

Any semblance of the jellybean shape that has been carried on in some degree in the Taurus is gone in favor of a more modern wedge-shaped look.

Rectangular backup lights are integrated into a chrome-encased triangular taillight assembly. It gives the Ford a unique, unmistakable look from the rear. A strip of chrome at the top edge of the trunk lid over the license plate casing is another touch not found on any other mid-sizer. If there is room for improvement it may be by eliminating some of the brightwork from the rear of the car.

Seventeen-inch aluminum wheels gave our test car an upscale look.

Ford paid attention to detail inside. Materials are of good quality and fit and finish is on a par with Hondas and Toyotas.

The dashboard has a handsome look with knobs and switches that work smoothly and have a quality feel. The gauges are large and easy to read. And at night, virtually all the controls are lighted.

Ford has decided to go with piano-black polished trim pieces across the dashboard instead of the faux wood used in the top trim level of just about every car over 20 grand these days. It’s a very pleasant change and it looks great.

The steering wheel tilts and telescopes. Space is plentiful up front with firm but comfortable and supportive seats.

Many people buying mid-size cars, it seems to us, carry adults in the back on a regular basis. And the Fusion has good leg room and comfortable rear seats. The seats can be folded in a 40-60 configuration to add cargo space to the trunk’s adequate 16 cubic feet.

The Fusion comes at an attractive price. For instance, the top-of-the-line SEL model starts at $22,360. After options the bottom line on our SEL test car came to $25,650. We think it unfortunate that two of those items — antilock brakes at $595 and traction control at $95 — are not standard equipment on a car of this caliber.

The Fusion starts at $17,795 for the 4-cylinder S trim line with manual transmission.

Even the base model has full power accessories, air conditioning, stereo with CD and four speakers and keyless entry.

The new Fusion is indeed a family sedan that rivals the best products on the market. Ford got this one just about right.

If you shop Mercury, it has an upscale version of the Fusion, called the Milan. It’s now in showrooms. Lincoln has a luxury version called the Zephyr. It will have an LCD screen with DVD navigation available.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on November 9, 2005 2:28 PM