Conversely, the Ford Taurus midsize sedan, for which 2006 is the last year, was allowed to wither as Ford concentrated on hot, high-profit light-truck models. The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord took over and have been trading off the best-seller title for about 12 years. Now, Ford's cash cows are in trouble because consumers can't afford the feed. Americans are abandoning truck-based sport utility vehicles for more efficient cars and car-based vehicles. The company can't afford a flop.
Ford Motor has learned how to share platforms and components among its brands without making the whole vehicles virtually identical. The Fusion is based on Ford subsidiary Mazda's critically acclaimed Mazda6 sedan, but with a different look. Its styling comes from the Ford 427 concept car from the 2003 auto-show season. I don't care for either, but I've met many folks who like the look. This can only be good for Ford. Polarization typically bodes well for a model's sales potential. Onlookers were surprised to find out it's a Ford.
Aside from having significantly different styling, the Fusion is a bit larger, outside and inside, as shown:
|Ford Fusion||Mazda Mazda6|
|Front Track (in.)||61.6||60.6|
|Rear Track (in.)||61.3||60.6|
|Front Headroom (in.)||38.7||38.7|
|Front Legroom (in.)||42.3||42.3|
|Front Hip Room (in.)||54.0||54.7|
|Front Shoulder Room (in.)||57.4||55.9|
|Rear Headroom (in.)||37.8||37.1|
|Rear Legroom (in.)||37.0||36.5|
|Rear Hip Room (in.)||53.4||54.1|
|Rear Shoulder Room (in.)||56.5||55.2|
|Passenger Volume (cu. ft.)||100.0||96.1|
|Trunk Volume (cu. ft.)||15.8||15.2|
The Fusion also has softer spring and shock-absorber rates, leaving the zoom-zoom image to Mazda. The ride quality is by no means soft, though. It's in line with the imports — firmer than the Camry but not as taut as the Accord, which I find too harsh. I drove the Fusion in Southern California, where curves and hills are plenty (as are traffic jams that would turn Gandhi to road rage). Without a test track, the best I could tell is that the car handles better than it needs to for its likely purpose as a family car.
There's no doubt the Fusion gives up some of the Mazda6's revered handling for a more comfortable ride. The Fusion's center of gravity feels higher in turns, but body roll is reasonably well controlled. The steering is precise and has less power assist than most American cars. Some will appreciate this; others won't.
The longer wheelbase comes at a price: The Fusion's turning diameter is a wide 38.8 - 40.0 feet (depending on trim level) versus the Hyundai Sonata's 35.8 feet, the Camry's 34.8 - 36.6 feet and the Accord's 36.2 feet.
All my impressions are for the Fusion SEL with the optional 3.0-liter V-6. I haven't driven the standard 2.3-liter four-cylinder, mainly because Ford didn't make it available at the model's introduction. I've been doing this job long enough to suspect that this is no coincidence. (If automakers think they really have something, they make it available.) I found the Mazda6 four-cylinder automatic to be underwhelming, so I'd expect a similar result from this car. You never know, though, so you should check one out. I hold out hope for the standard manual transmission over the five-speed automatic. The 2.3-liter is a very good engine.
The drivetrain I did experience is a high point of the car. It comprises Ford's Duratec V-6 and a six-speed-automatic transmission from Japanese supplier Aisin. (Though Ford has been working with General Motors on a six-speed automatic for front-wheel-drive applications, it's still in development.) The broad range of gear ratios makes for spirited acceleration without sacrificing efficient high-speed cruising. Most important, it reacts quickly and without undue kickdown lag. (For no good reason I've ever heard, many automatic transmissions seem to add lag along with each gear.)
The EPA estimates the Fusion's fuel economy at 23/31 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission (automatic figure not yet listed) and 21/29 for the V-6. The four-cylinder falls a few mpg behind the class leaders, but the V-6 is in the same ballpark. Unfortunately, a hybrid drivetrain is two years away.
The Fusion has a rigid, solid feel and is notably less noisy than many cars in this class. None of this could be said about the Taurus. The interior is conservative but much higher in materials quality than Fords of just a few years ago. The dashboard and door panels are low-gloss and soft to the touch. I love the idea of the lacquered piano-black trim in place of wood (and anything's better than more fake metal), but something about the execution here doesn't work for me. Perhaps it's just because the test vehicle was early-production.
As the table above illustrates, the Fusion's interior dimensions are a bit greater than those of the Mazda6. By clicking on Side-by-Side Comparison at the top of this page, you can see how the Fusion stacks up against other competitors. It's closer to the Camry and Accord, dimensionally, but it falls behind the 2006 Sonata, now technically a full-size car. All of the figures are close enough that you'll have to try each car on for size. The measurements are two-dimensional and do a poor job of defining three-dimensional space.
Ford says it has priced the Fusion to compete with the high-value Sonata, but if you compare the two, you'll find that a similarly priced Fusion has fewer features, counting some important and high-cost items such as ABS, side-impact airbags and an electronic stability system. Compared to the Camry and Accord, the Fusion is far more competitive, dollar for dollar, in size, features and warranty. The Fusion offers a V-6 at the price of the Japanese models' four-cylinders. On the other hand, the latter do offer stability systems, which the Fusion won't even have for another year. Next year, the Fusion is also intended to get all-wheel drive, which the other models mentioned don't currently offer.
Without question, the Fusion is the most competitive midsize sedan that any domestic automaker has rolled out in more than a decade. Ford simply needs Americans — who know what the names Camry and Accord stand for after more than 20 years — to find out what a Fusion is.
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