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2006 Ford Fusion: Honesty May Be the Best Policy

Published: October 30, 2005

EVERY time a new car comes out, the spin cycle starts. Engineers point to features that no one has offered before. The manufacturer projects rosy sales. Public relations types promise that America is going to love the all-new (fill in carefully focus-group-vetted model name here).
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The Ford Fusion
The Ford Fusion

But something seemed different this fall at the debut of the 2006 Ford Fusion (Video Review Jan. 2005), a midsize sedan aimed at the vast heart of the car market (along with its similar stablemates, the Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr).

As expected, Ford promised that the new models would make the company a contender again in the crucial midsize class. But there was a new wrinkle: one by one, Ford functionaries pulled me aside to say, "I think you are going to like this car."

They were right. Ordinarily, when it comes to the bland, uninspiring and uniform universe of midsize cars, I'm like Mikey in the old cereal commercial - I don't like anything. I initially viewed the Fusion as a smaller version of the uninteresting Ford Five Hundred, which landed in the market last year with a thud. But the Fusion quickly convinced me that it has the stuff to make Ford a middleweight contender again.

As dull, utilitarian and sensible as they tend to be, midsize sedans are big business, with high-volume heavyweights like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry slugging it out each year for the American car-sales crown. Ford was once a contender, too; its soon-to-be-discontinued Taurus was the sales leader in 1992-96.

Each of the three new models from Ford is about the same size as the class leaders and uses the same market-tested front-drive configuation - in this case, a vehicle platform borrowed from the highly regarded Mazda 6. They are also priced to undercut most competitors, with base prices starting at $17,145 for the Fusion, $18,995 for the Milan and $29,660 for the Zephyr.

The basic Fusion is propelled, somewhat somnambulantly, by an in-line four-cylinder engine displacing 2.3 liters and producing 160 horsepower. In fairness, the four-cylinder Accord offers similar horsepower and the Camry less. Ford's engine is economical, with a highway rating of about 30 m.p.g. It is also eco-friendly, earning a "partial zero emissions vehicle" rating in California. PZEV's eliminate evaporative emissions from the fuel system and can run cleaner than a hybrid.

The other engine, the 3-liter Duratec V-6, makes more horsepower (221) than either of the Camry V-6's; Honda now has an Accord with 244 horsepower.

With the V-6, the Fusion offers the segment's only six-speed automatic, and can knock off 0-to-60 m.p.h. runs in 8 seconds. The V-6 is intended to run on regular fuel; Toyota and Honda recommend premium.

A full hybrid powertrain is to be offered by 2008.

The Fusion's design is not trendy or ground-breaking, as the rounded-off Taurus was when it arrived in the square-cut mid-1980's. Yet it seems to hit a hard-to-define sweet spot in styling, just as enduring models like the 1957 Ford Fairlane once did.

The highest compliment might be to say the styling is straightforward, honest and well executed. "Even standing still, Fusion conveys a strong sense of direction," said Peter Horbury, Ford's executive director of design. In front there is a strong grille with thick bright bars and swept-back headlamps that recall the defunct Honda Prelude. There is no shortage of exterior brightwork; spoke wheels add a nice final touch.

The model that comes off poorly by comparison is the Ford Five Hundred, a larger, heavier sedan that is dragged around by a 203-horsepower V-6 and an underwhelming continuously variable transmission.

The Fusion seems much more tightly put together than the Five Hundred. Its rack-and-pinion steering is a delight; taut and precise, with relatively high effort that gives the car a class-above feel. There is a bit of torque pull that tugs at the steering wheel under heavy, sustained acceleration, but nothing egregious. The car handles with aplomb in everyday conditions.

Like the exterior styling, the interior benefits from understatement, with clear, logical controls where they belong. The leather seats on my test car were nicely appointed and posture-pedically supportive. In the back is another example of how Ford did an honest job on this vehicle; some automakers play tricks to create rear legroom by downsizing the seat. Ford has not; the cushions are large and nicely proportioned.

Three eye-pleasing interior looks are available, from total black to light ivory, or a mixture. The instrument panel is logical, with well-placed gauges.

On concrete roadways, the cabin was a bit noisier than I'd like, but otherwise quiet and well insulated. The interior seemed better isolated from the chassis than one might expect, with little vibration or engine whine.

To me, Ford's one misstep is in the mixed message that its high-performance advertising and promotion send about a meat-and-potatoes car. For instance, the Fusion is Ford's new entry in Nascar, where it will race with a V-8 and rear drive.

Ford has also given its blessing to custom versions with wild paint and interiors, lowered suspensions and outsize wheels, to be displayed this week at the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers' show in Las Vegas.

Smart styling should help to mitigate some of the more confusing aspects of Ford's campaign. When my test was ending, a bystander noticed the car and ran up, exclaiming, "Wow, is that a great car or what?"

INSIDE TRACK: R.I.P., Five Hundred.
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