Hybrids largely come in two categories: the oxymoronic performance cars like the underwhelming Honda CR-Z, or pragmatic fuel-sippers with the allure of a Whirlpool dishwasher, like a Toyota Prius C. So it’s a delightful surprise that the 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid and Fusion Energi not only satisfy behind the wheel, but also live up to its EPA figures (unlike Ford’s C-Max Hybrid).
Part of the obvious appeal is style: in a sea of midsize Ed O'Neills, the new Ford Fusion is a Sophia Vergara of grocery pushers. And those dreamy curves don’t come with exorbitant maintenance bills like an Italian exotic, or an unattainable price tag.
Moreover, the Hybrid and plug-in Energi are the most desirable of the Fusion line-up. Sure the 231-hp Titanium AWD trim has more immediate acceleration, but in city driving the gasoline turbo gets the mpg of a Mitsubushi Evo. Plus, the Fusion hybrid has one of the more rewarding fuel economy displays on the market. Unlike the hackneyed, touchy-feely user interface of its competitors like the Kia Optima Hybrid, which shows a plant blooming with frilly flowers when you’re saving gas, Ford just tells you the percentage of energy returned from regenerative braking, or your average fuel economy per trip.
Even without resorting to self-aggrandizing metaphors of saving a tree through your driving (imagery lost on me since I have a black thumb with plants), it feels like a video game when trying to maximize efficiency. The no-nonsense UI and tactile feedback clearly communicate how the hybrid system works, providing a sense of connection to the car. For example, you get a subtle tug when the brakes transitions to the conventional disc brakes. Conventional wisdom says it should be seamless, but because you feel the switch over, the car subconsciously teaches you to be soft on the left pedal to get the energy back.
And that’s behavioral patterning I haven’t embraced with any other hybrid. I found myself driving 60 mph in the slow lane for my daily commute, as opposed to barreling down the left lane — and enjoying it. The steering provides decent feedback, and although the batteries to the rear crimp on trunk space (especially the Energi, which barely fits a set of golf clubs), it provides better weight balance while still retaining a sporting character around the bends. If you need to romp on it, the combined 188 hp from the gasoline and electric motor is more than enough for passing on freeways, though I was content to keep it running in the electric mode whenever possible.
Choosing between the hybrid and plug-in comes down to daily driving habit: the hybrid is ideal for city driving, where it’s easy to hit 50 mpg even in snarled stop-and-go traffic. But on the interstate that efficiency can quickly dwindle to 35-40 mpg, especially when getting to speeds above 70 mph, or driving in cold weather. Whereas it’s easy to hit the EPA-rated figure (47/47 city/hwy mpg) around town, on the freeway it’s impossible to hit that number when going above 65 mph — mostly because the Fusion won’t use much of the electric motor. Hence the Energi is better suited for longer, higher-speed jaunts with its 21-mile electric range, and the higher throttle threshold for the gasoline motor to kick in means it feels more like a full-fledged electric car. That said, the additional 300 lbs. of weight in the plug-in does slightly dampen acceleration and the responsiveness through the corners.
Starting at $38,700 the Energi trim lands in luxury car territory, but it benefits from a $3,750 Federal tax credit, and for the Prius-loving Californians, an additional $1,500 CARB credit as well as the coveted HOV lane sticker. The hybrid starts at $27,200 which is a strong deal considering its combination of style, fuel efficiency and crisp dynamics. But you can’t go wrong with either — an engaging drive is a rarity in the appliance-minded segment of midsize cars.