On Tuesday, Ford launched the 2013 Fusion, bringing CEO Alan Mulally and Ryan Seacrest to a Times Square event that underlined just how important the new car is to the company's future.
Yesterday, Ford invited me to test drive the Fusion, which will go head-to-head with with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord for the biggest car market in the country.
The midsize market is the largest in the United States. Ford Brand Manager Lew Echlin noted that two out of five prospective buyers look at a midsize car while shopping. One fifth of cars sold are in the segment. That's 2.1 million sales annually, a number that is set to rise.
The Fusion is the newcomer in a crowded field. It was introduced in 2006, and has done very well since. US News ranked it the #1 Affordable Midsize Car in 2012. The Honda Accord came in second, and the Camry fifth.
To keep up the momentum, the 2013 Fusion represents a "full blown freshening" of the model, Echlin said. Ford does not give sales figures, but he predicted a "quantum leap in volume," and pointed out the $500,000 investment in the Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Michigan, which will build the new Fusions. So there's a lot riding on the success of the Fusion.
No Gas Guzzler
There 2013 Fusion comes with a 1.6-liter or 2.0-liter engine, and as a hybrid. There's a plug-in hybrid version coming early next year. The Hybrid gets an excellent 47 mpg in the city and on the highway, better than the Camry Hybrid's 43 city, 39 highway. (Unlike conventional cars, hybrids tend to have better mileage in stop and go traffic, where the electric motor does most of the work.)
With optional EcoBoost, the 1.6-liter version gets 25 mpg city and 37 mpg highway; the 2.0-liter gets 22 mpg city, 33 mpg highway.
As Echlin pointed out, this is "not traditionally a very highly stylized segment." The Fusion is no Lamborghini, but it is a sleek, good looking car. It is as aerodynamically efficient as Porsche's Cayenne, and good aerodynamics usually translates to cool styling.
I drove the Hybrid around Manhattan for about an hour. In midtown traffic, the electric motor took care of all the acceleration; the engine only kicked in when I really pushed the pedal. It can actually drive at 62 mph on the electric motor alone, but getting there would take quite a while and some very slow accelerating.
The 2.0-liter hybrid electric engine produces 188 hp, nothing amazing, but it got me onto the West Side Highway without a problem.
Little Things I Loved
For most car buyers, the details of a car are more important than its 0 to 60 mph time. I have never driven a car at its top speed, so don't care too much what it is. What I do notice is if the seats are comfortable and if the controls are intuitive.
"The devil is in the details," Ford Vehicle Dynamics Supervisor Louis Jamail, who joined me for the drive, said several times. He and his team did a good job: In the hour I spent in the Fusion, I was impressed by a lot of little things.
When I turned the key, I heard nothing, so assumed the car had not started. In fact, it had — so said the "Ready to Drive" message on the central screen. Because the engine does not kick in until it is needed, there's no noise when the car is stopped or moderately accelerating, a pleasure in traffic.
Putting the car in reverse automatically brings up the the rear view camera on the screen. Lines indicate the projected path of the car, based on how the wheels are turned. In a city full of aggressive pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, it was nice to know I was not about to hit anyone.
There's a sensor to detect obstacles in front of the car as well, which went off each time a jaywalker slipped in front of me. If it's annoying, it can be turned off; I like the extra warning.
The Fusion features electric power-assisted steering. Turning is easy, but not to the point where it feels like "video game steering." It makes driving simpler without making it automatic or devoid of fun.
The dashboard drives home the message that this is a fuel efficient car. The Hybrid uses regenerative braking to recharge the battery; the more gradual the stop, the more energy is captured. Every time I stopped, it told me the percentage of the possible energy I had captured. After scoring in the high 90s, I booked a few perfect scores. The self-esteem boost would have been worth even more had I been paying to fill the tank.
The car I drove was equipped with a lane keeping system that uses cameras to detect the lines painted on the road. On the highway, I turned it on and drifted to the left, only to be gently guided back to the middle of my lane. (It only kicks in when the car is driving above 25 mph, and is deactivated when the turn signal is on.)
I didn't play around much with the entertainment system, but the touch screen was pretty responsive.
The steering wheel has a lot of buttons on it, and I wasn't sure what each meant. There are a lot of controls in general, and since it was my first time in the car, I was at a loss for what most of them did. For a Fusion owner, this problem will go away with time, but it is annoying in the short term.
The Fusion could be cooler, and faster, and fancier. But then it would not fit the midsize, $20,000 to $30,000 market it is meant to compete in.
Based on my time in the Fusion Hybrid, I recommend it. It is attractive, technologically advanced, comfortable, and easy to drive. No midsize car can beat 47 mpg, and the built-in features encourage drivers to hit that mark.
I have not driven the latest Accord or Camry, but if car shoppers looking at the Fusion feel the way I do, Ford is on its way to a larger share than ever of the crucial midsize segment.
The 1.6-liter Fusion starts at $21,700, the Hybrid at $27,200.
Now see photos of our test drive in the new Ford Fusion >
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