Ford to the rescue with the 2006 Fusion, a midsize sedan that offers a choice of engines, a peppy V-6 to pull out and pass or climb the steep hill and a high-mileage 4-cylinder to get there and back without pulling up to a pump and handing over wallet or purse for a ration of fuel.
Ample room and good mileage, but when you opt for the 2.3-liter, 160-horsepower 4-cylinder, you have to expect to compromise. Don't expect to zip from the light as you would with the 3-liter, 221-h.p. V-6.
In fact, the 4-cylinder wouldn't burn rubber unless you pour gas on the treads and strike a match.
But the 4, teamed with a very smooth shifting 5-speed manual, is rated at 23 m.p.g. city, 31 m.p.g. highway, making it a member of the 30 m.p.g. club. With V-6 and automatic the rating is 21/29.
Fusion is a member of the trio derived from the Mazda6 sedan. Its companions are the Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr. Sharing parts and components, though not styling, gave Ford three vehicles on the cheap.
Fusion is offered in S, SE and top-of-the-line SEL versions, the one we tested, and borrows front-end styling from the Ford 427 concept of a few years ago.
For now Fusion is offered only in front-wheel-drive. All-wheel-drive will be added this fall for the 2007 model year to give the lineup an all-season hauler aimed at Snow Belt motorists.
AWD also gives Ford an edge over the rival Camry and Accord, neither of which offer it.
However, Camry and Accord have gas/electric models that deliver better mileage than the 4-cylinder Fusion. Its hybrid is coming in 2008.
None of the three run on E85, the ethanol gasoline blend, however.
Ford brought out the 4 to go head to head with Camry/Accord, 60 percent of whose sales are with that smaller engine. The 4 accounts for roughly 50 percent of Fusion sales.
Concern over $3 a gallon gas has prompted more consumers than expected to take the 4 with the 5-speed, the traditional transmission of choice to eke a mile or two per gallon more out of an engine.
Ford had anticipated the manual "take rate" at only 5 percent of sales, but more than 10 percent of buyers are going for it though its mileage is a hair lower than the automatic's.
The 4 with manual delivers 23 m.p.g. city/31 m.p.g. highway, with automatic it's 23/32, or 1 m.p.g. better. Perhaps some folks didn't look at the mileage comparison as closely as they should.
We had tested Fusion with the V-6 and automatic (Transportation, Dec. 30, 2005), and, other than the engine, nothing is different.
Fusion is 6 inches shorter and 1 inch narrower than the Taurus it replaces. While considerably more fashionable than Taurus, Fusion also 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 should get the call.
Road manners benefit from 17-inch all-season radials designed to take some of the rough edges off ride and offer a little more stable handling in basically an economy car. But steering feels a little heavy. It's not going to slip into and out of the parking stall with only fingertip action.
The addition of AWD this fall should mean swifter response to steering input as well as that added security in the Snow Belt.
Nice touch: Fusion has a covered compartment in the top of the dash to keep things such as cell phone and maps out of sight and in place so they don't bounce around the cabin.
But did any engineer measure the width of a child safety seat against the room needed to expose the buckle for said seat in back?
The SEL with 4-cylinder and manual starts at $18,985.
Automatic temperature control; body-colored, power mirrors; AM/FM stereo with in-dash MP3 and CD player; power windows and locks; power driver's seat; and tilt and telescoping steering wheel are standard. You can add leather seats for $895 and get them heated for another $295.
This fall, side-curtain air bags will be added as standard. They now are part of a safety and security package that runs $595 and includes an alarm. Anti-lock brakes, a $595 option for 2006, will remain an option for 2007, though no word on pricing.
Ford sold 70,000 Fusions in the first six months of this year, putting it on track to far exceed the original sales target of 100,000 units annually.
Pontiac Solstice automatic
Love the Pontiac Solstice roadster but the 5-speed manual has kept you out of one?
A 5-speed automatic is now available for $850.
While the automatic relieves the chore of having to constantly shift gears in rush-hour traffic, it hasn't solved the problems with the tight cabin, mininal storage space and softtop that takes two to lift, fold and store.
On top of that, the addition of automatic hasn't relieved chronic short supplies of the roadster.
The 2006 model is sold out, and Pontiac has 8,000 sold orders for 2007s, when it expects automatics to account for at least 40 percent.
Also new for 2007 is a turbocharged GXP version with its 2-liter, 260-h.p. 4 teamed with 5-speed manual or automatic.
Those in line for a 2007 will have to dig a bit deeper into pocket or purse. The price goes up by $500 to $20,495 including $600 freight. The more potent Solstice GXP starts at $25,995.
Automatic has broadened the appeal of Solstice not only among those who have yet to master a manual transmission, but also for the manual proficient who want a car that's far more user-friendly for commuting.
With the automatic, however, you have to put up with a little transmission growl at takeoff.
Solstice starts at $19,915, but premium, convenience and power packages add more than $1,700 for such features as power locks, windows and mirrors. Add another $1,300 for air conditioning and ABS, plus $850 for the automatic. The test car came with $6,850 in options that pushed the sticker above $26,000, rather hefty out-the-door price on a car Pontiac boasts "starts under $20,000."
If you missed out on an '06, take solace in the other new features for '07: a Mean Yellow exterior color and a lighter taupe convertible top (black only for 2006).
Pontiac said 2006 model year sales will total about 18,826 units, 15,720 manuals and 3,106 automatics. It expects sales of at least 20,000 for 2007.
With 8,000 orders in hand, a 2007 Solstice ordered today might not arrive until January.
- - -
2006 Ford Fusion SEL
Price as tested: $22,180*
Wheelbase: 107.4 inches
Length: 190.2 inches
Engine: 2.3-liter, 160-h.p. 4-cylinder
Transmission: 5-speed manual
CITY 23 m.p.g.
HWY 31 m.p.g.
$895 Leather seating
$595 Safety and security package with side-curtain air bags and anti-theft alarm
$420 Audiophile sound system
$395 SEL package with heated power mirrors and puddle lamps, self-dimming mirror with compass and automatic on/off headlamps
$295 Heated front seats
*Add $650 for freight
- Higher-mileage 4-cylinder version of Ford's midsize sedan to take on Camry and Accord.
- Smooth 5-speed manual.
- Stylish design borrowed from Ford 427 concept.
- AWD version coming this fall.
- High mileage, but not high power.
- Won't burn E85.
- No hybrid until 2008.
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.
email@example.com Jim Mateja