EXPERT REVIEW

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The second piece of the puzzle is now in place.

Ford, like General Motors, has vowed for years to have a rival worthy to compete against the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, which since the 1997 calendar year, have taken turns as the top-selling car in the auto industry.

That 1997 date is significant because it’s the last time Ford held the crown, with its midsize Taurus sedan, which has been designated to serve out whatever time it has remaining on this planet as fleet fodder.

The Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans that bowed for the 2005 model year were the first to take on Camry and Accord.

For 2006, Ford has brought in reinforcements: Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan (Transportation, Sept. 11), midsize vehicles slightly smaller and lower priced.

The new trio is rounded out by the Lincoln Zephyr. They arrive compliments of Mazda, which is owned by Ford, and are derivatives of the Mazda6 sedan. Sharing parts and components, though not styling, gave Ford three more vehicles on the cheap.

Fusion is offered in S, SE and top-of-the-line SEL versions but for now only in front-wheel-drive. An all-wheel-drive version will be added for the 2007 model year to give the lineup an all-season hauler aimed at the Snow Belt.

Styling borrows from the 427 concept sedan of a few years ago, a look that Ford insiders say will show up in a variety of models as well to give Ford cars a “family” look.

One perception Ford must overcome, however, is that Fusion is 6 inches shorter and 1 inch narrower than Taurus and looks considerably smaller.

The cabin has ample room to hold four adults, but if you need to transport five in comfort, the Five Hundred or Crown Victoria would get the call.

Five Hundred offers only a 3-liter V-6. But Fusion offers a 2.3-liter, 160-horsepower, 4-cylinder with 5-speed manual or automatic rated at 23 m.p.g. city and 31 m.p.g. highway with manual, 23/32 with automatic; or a 3-liter, 221-h.p. V-6 teamed with only a 6-speed automatic rated at 21 m.p.g. city/29 m.p.g. highway.

The reason for a 4-cylinder is that most Camry and Accord sales are of 4-cylinder models, not V-6s. Taurus didn’t offer a 4, and Five Hundred doesn’t offer a 4 and so Fusion is the designated hitter against the Japanese rivals.

Ford is counting on 45 percent of Fusion sales to be 4s.

Fusion will add a third powerplant, a higher-mileage, lower-polluting gas/electric, but not until the 2008 model year. Though better late than never, Accord has a hybrid now and Camry will next fall. So Ford will go into battle without all of its weapons. Anything Ford can do to move up the introduction could only help the automaker and energy-conscious consumers.

We tested the SEL with V-6 and 6-speed automatic. As with the Five Hundred, one gripe is ample power.

The 3-liter V-6 features variable valve timing for more low-end torque when moving from the light. Though the V-6 is the performance upgrade, and sufficiently quiet, it could use a little more muscle when called on to pass or take steep grades.

The V-6 doesn’t stutter pulling away from the light, but you feel as if you’re piloting the 4,100-pound Crown Vic rather than a 3,100-pound Fusion.

One reason is that the steering is heavy. While not cumbersome–and you don’t have to make wide, pronounced swings to get into the parking stall–it’s not as nimble and quick to respond as a Camry or Accord that boast fingertip steering effort and give you the impression the cars are quicker than they are.

The addition of AWD in ’07 should mean swifter reaction to steering input to lighten the feeling of weight in the wheel. Ford was going to hold off on AWD until 2008, but moved it up a year because 40 percent of Five Hundred buyers are purchasing it now.

The suspension is also a little firm. It’s tuned to minimize harshness coming back into the seat and wheel when traveling over those tar marks in the pavement, but don’t expect to be as well cushioned as in a $40,000 luxury machine.

The cabin holds four adults without being squeezed, though slimmer armrests would be appreciated. Seats are supportive for long-distance travel, and controls are easy to see and use. Trunk space is more than ample and basically the same size as Taurus.

Interior trim is a little less high fashion than Milan, which offers covered cupholders and two-tone leather seats. Fusion has open holders and solid-color cloth or leather seats.

Like Milan, Fusion has a covered compartment in the top of the dash to keep things out of sight and in place–like cell phone or maps. Great use of normally wasted space.

The Fusion SEL tested starts at $21,710. Standard equipment includes the typical power goodies–windows, locks, mirrors and seats–automatic climate control and AM/FM radio with CD player and MP3.

One reason the base price is so respectable is that desirable equipment has been made optional, such as anti-lock brakes (standard Milan) at $595, traction control at $95, power moonroof at $795, side-impact and side-curtain air bags at $595 and leather, heated seats at $1,190.

Despite the shortcomings that can be solved with a peppier engine, more responsive steering and AWD and hybrid power, Fusion is far superior to Taurus.

There have been reports, however, of problems with Collins & Aikman Corp., a now bankrupt supplier that provides instrument panels, door panels and trunk systems for the Fusion, getting parts to the factory in Hermosillo, Mexico.

“There have been no significant reductions in the flow of parts to the factory, and we don’t expect any shipment delays,” Ford spokesman Dave Reuter insisted. “We’ve built 20,000 already and are shipping them to dealers now.”

Fusion is important to Ford not just in attracting new buyers, but also in keeping old ones.

Ford estimates it loses 50,000 sales a year when Focus, Mustang and Taurus owners leave the family for a larger, midsize sedan, typically a Camry or Accord.

“We lose 30,000 who are done with Taurus and 10,000 each from Focus and Mustang owners,” Reuter said.

Fusion is targeted at younger buyers in their mid-30s, and Five Hundred handles those in their mid-50s.

The Hermosillo plant can build 300,000 cars annually that will be divided among Fusion, Milan and Zephyr. Fusion is expected to be the volume sedan with first-year sales of 130,000 to 140,000 and more than 170,000 units annually after that.

Five Hundred has been targeted at annual sales of 100,000 units, a level it will exceed, Ford says.

Perhaps it’s best not to judge Fusion on how many sales it racks up but rather how many it takes away from Camry and Accord.

– – –

2006 Ford Fusion SEL

$25,000 price as tested*

Wheelbase: 107.4 inches

Length: 190.2 inches

Engine: 3-liter, 221-h.p., V-6

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

21 m.p.g. CITY

29 m.p.g. HWY

THE STICKER

$21,710 Base price

$895 leather seats

295 heated seats

595 side air bags, side-curtain air bags

395 premium package with heated mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, compass and automatic headlamps

595 anti-lock brakes

95 traction control

420 audiophile system with six-disc in-dash CD changer and eight speakers

*Add $650 for freight.

PLUSES

– Another new midsize offering from Ford that’s lower priced than the Five Hundred.

– Pleasant design borrowed from 427 concept car.

– Decent cabin room and trunk space, as well as mileage. It’s a family hauler.

MINUSES

– Stiff ride and you feel lots of weight in the wheel.

– Lots of extra cost options.

– V-6 could use a little more power.

– All-wheel-drive not available until ’07 model year and gas/electric hybrid not available until ’08.

– – –

Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.

jmateja@tribune.com Jim Mateja

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