Three years have passed since the Ford Fusion arrived, and those years have been kind: Its proportions still lend a clean-cut athleticism that's rare among family sedans, and its spot-on handling puts many of those sedans to shame. In competition with some of its freshest rivals, the Fusion comes up short overall, but it beats most of them in value — the well-equipped base model starts around $18,000 — and remains a viable choice for car shoppers seeking a midsize bargain.
The Fusion comes in S, SE and SEL trims, with front- or all-wheel drive, manual or automatic transmissions, and four-cylinder or V-6 engines; click here to see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model. Mercury markets a twin in the slightly pricier Milan. I tested a Fusion SEL with the four-cylinder and a stick shift, though I've driven the V-6 automatic, too.
Going & Stopping
Ford's 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter four-cylinder is standard on all trims. It works with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. Optional on the SE and SEL is a 221-hp, 3.0-liter V-6; it comes only with a six-speed automatic.
The four-cylinder feels smooth, revving to high speeds with none of the strained fussiness that often accompanies such moves. Passing power seems adequate, if not quite energetic, and I found enough pep to get around town with two passengers in tow. The drivetrain is quiet, too: With little engine noise to remind me to, I forgot to shift into fifth gear on the highway several times.
The gearshift itself has long throws, but each gear position feels crisp and well-defined. Parents should know that the Fusion is a good candidate for teaching teens to drive stick — its clutch is light and forgiving, and the accelerator isn't overly sensitive.
The V-6 feels comparatively less impressive. It's certainly stronger than the four-cylinder, and it moves quickest when revved hard, but it just can't muster the forcefulness of a V-6 Nissan Altima or Toyota Camry, both of which have another half-liter of displacement at their disposal. Stick with front-wheel drive for the best acceleration; the all-wheel-drive system saddles the Fusion with an extra 218 pounds, or roughly 6 percent more weight.
Another disappointment is the Fusion's gas mileage: Among its major competitors, it's the only car that can't manage 30 mpg on the highway. You'd think the Fusion's smaller engines would turn out better efficiency, but modern automotive technology proves that isn't always the case:
|Mileage Compared (city/highway, mpg)|
|Nissan Altima||23/32 (manual); 23/31 (auto)||19/27 (manual)*; 19/26 (auto)*|
|Honda Accord||22/31 (manual); 21/31 (auto)||19/29 (auto)|
|Toyota Camry||21/31 (manual and auto)||19/28 (auto)|
|Hyundai Sonata||21/31 (manual); 21/30 (auto)||19/28 (auto)|
|Chevrolet Malibu||22/30 (auto)||18/29 (3.5L auto); 17/26 (3.6L auto)|
|Ford Fusion||20/29 (manual); 20/28 (auto)||18/26 (auto, FWD); 17/25 (auto, AWD)|
|Source: EPA for 2008 models.|
*Premium fuel recommended; all others recommend regular.
All Fusions have four-wheel-disc brakes, and antilock brakes are newly standard for 2008. The pedal produces linear response, though it doesn't inspire as much stopping confidence as the brakes in the new Chevy Malibu.
Ride & Handling
All Fusions have a four-wheel-independent suspension, and my test car came with a sport-tuned suspension and 18-inch wheels. The resulting ride is more supple than the car's thin P225/45R18 tires would suggest, but the suspension can become quite loud over major bumps. There's plenty of road noise on the highway, too, though wind noise remains in check. Presumably the regular suspension and 16- or 17-inch wheels — which come with chunkier 60- or 50-series tires, respectively — provide a more cushioned ride.
Handling is probably the Fusion's best attribute. Its steering wheel turns with a light touch but stops short of feeling overly assisted, and the precise turn-in will impress anyone used to driving a family car. The chassis shows firm composure over stretches of broken pavement, only yielding to wobbly shake-ups after serious bumps. On highway cloverleaves, body roll remains controlled.
Unfortunately, the steering doesn't yield a tight turning circle: At 39 feet, it's more than a foot wider than a number of major competitors.
Exterior & Styling
A car's proportions are usually the first thing to go sour — note the redesigned Camry, mildly provocative in late 2006 and all but stale a year later. Improbably, the Fusion has aged well. It bucks the trend toward upright, big-car faces (if you're into that sort of thing, check out the Malibu), but it's appealing all the same. I thought the short front overhang and long tail looked lean and athletic — no doubt a subconscious gesture to the fact that I am neither.
Sixteen-inch steel wheels are standard, with optional alloy wheels available in 16-, 17- and 18-inch diameters. My only gripe is with the clear-lens taillights, a styling cue that never should have left the aftermarket. Get a Fusion in gray, like my test car, and they blend in a bit better.
I wish the Fusion's interior had aged as well as the exterior. Its wraparound dashboard is soft to the touch but finished in a grainy texture that looks inferior to some of the more common materials you'll find in this class. Certain elements are especially dated — most obviously the stereo system, which still sits in a square cutout; competitors have long since integrated theirs into their surroundings. The automatic climate control in my test car had the same design, complete with chrome accents, as the ones in Ford's larger Taurus, but while those buttons press down with well-cushioned clarity, these don't feel quite so solid. (At the Chicago Auto Show several weeks ago, I verified this by sitting back-to-back in a Fusion and Taurus.)
I also stole some time in a Fusion SE at the show, and the manual climate controls felt flimsy and imprecise compared to the ones in the base-model Camry and Accord across the floor. The seats, too, seem narrow and stiff, and some of the interior panels were poorly finished. Check out the photos above to see more.
Ford's Sync audio system is new this year and should become available in most Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models by 2010. I've separated my critique of it into a section at the bottom of this review. Suffice it to say, the system has certain limitations that aren't immediately obvious in how it's marketed.
Headroom and legroom is adequate, though no spot feels especially spacious. The Fusion's redemption comes in its cargo space, which is easily one of the best you'll find in a family car. The trunk boasts a low lift-over height and a healthy 15.8 cubic feet of volume, and the 60/40-split rear seats fold with release handles at the lip of the trunk. The seatbacks are spring-loaded, too, so they fall forward without you needing to pull them down from the backseat or push something against them from the trunk. If you have fragile cargo — say, a lamp — the Fusion can be a godsend.
|Passenger volume (cu. ft.)||Cargo volume (cu. ft.)|
|Toyota Camry||101.4||14.5 — 15.0*|
|Ford Fusion||96.9 — 100.7**||15.8|
|Source: Automakers; all passenger volumes are without moonroofs.|
*14.5 cu. ft. in SE, XLE; 15.0 cu. ft. in CE and LE.
**96.9 cu. ft. with AWD; 100.7 cu. ft. with FWD.
Safety & Reliability
In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Fusion earned the top score, Good, in both frontal and side impacts. Standard safety features include front and side-impact airbags for the front seats, as well as side curtain airbags for both rows. Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard. Per federal requirements for 2008, so is a tire pressure monitoring system.
Unfortunately, an electronic stability system is still missing. The feature isn't as necessary as it might be in an SUV, but its wide availability among competitors — it's standard on the Accord and Sonata and optional on the Camry, Altima and Malibu — makes the Fusion's omission less acceptable.
The backseat includes Latch child seat anchors for the outboard positions, though I found them buried a bit deep in the cushions. Top-tether anchors for all three seats are clearly marked on the rear shelf. Note, however, that the rear head restraints are little more than extensions of the seatback; they keep visibility out the rear window unobstructed, but I'm dubious about the whiplash protection they'll provide for taller passengers.
Reliability scores are promising, with '06 and '07 models earning above-average or excellent scores for overall reliability from Consumer Reports. Ford's powertrain and bumper-to-bumper warranties aren't as impressive as GM's or Hyundai's, but they generally match what Toyota and Honda offer.
Features & Pricing
Without the destination charge, the Fusion S starts at just $18,010 — some $2,000 less than the Accord or Malibu. It comes impressively equipped at that, with power windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control, A/C and a CD stereo. The Fusion SE is the real steal: It adds 16-inch alloy wheels, a power driver's seat and an upgraded stereo with steering-wheel controls — and costs just $925 more. The Fusion SEL ($20,025) upgrades to 17-inch rims and automatic climate control, among other features.
An automatic transmission costs $875. The V-6 engine, available on the SE and SEL, adds $2,750 but includes the automatic transmission. All-wheel drive adds $1,850 and can only be had with the V-6. Other options include heated leather seats, a moonroof, rear parking sensors, a navigation system and Sync. Some luxury features available elsewhere in this class, like a power passenger seat and dual-zone climate control, are not offered.
Expect an all-wheel-drive Fusion SEL to top out around $30,000.
Fusion in the Market
Put the Fusion toe-to-toe with its competition, and it comes up short in a lot of ways. The cabin is starting to show its age, and the engines are both underwhelming and inefficient — a paradoxical combination, and not a good one at any rate. But like most aging products, Ford gives this car a handsome discount: For the cost of a modestly equipped Accord or Malibu, you could get a well-heeled Fusion with cash to spare. The fact that it can edge both cars out in a few areas is a testament to its continued viability, and it means bargain hunters will find the compromises few.
Sync or Swim?
Microsoft helped develop Sync, which uses voice recognition software to play songs from your MP3 player, as well as make and receive hands-free phone calls. Sync is optional on the Fusion SE and standard on the SEL.
The feature works by indexing the songs off an iPod, Zune or other compatible MP3 player. The players plug into a USB port, and the system recognizes songs, artists, playlists and album titles. I found audio quality to be superior to that of an MP3 player plugged into an auxiliary jack (though there is one next to the USB plug should you need it). The USB plug-in also charges the MP3 player and turns it off when you get out of the car. Auxiliary plugs do neither, and I've returned many a morning to find my iPod's battery dead.
Sync could be a smash hit for audiophiles with short attention spans, as it allows you to switch from one song to another at the slightest whim. Others might not enjoy having to talk to their stereo to get it to work — and, in some cases, upgrading their MP3 software on a home computer.
For me, the system was more a pain than anything else. Try as I might, I couldn't get my iPod to start playing songs when I got back into the car unless I pressed a button on the steering wheel, waited for Sync's audio chime and said "USB." Sync engineer Jeff Ostrowski said that was likely because my iPod had outdated firmware; properly updated devices should play songs right away, he said. What's more, a number of songs on my iPod are apparently missing metadata — the litany of electronic tags that code everything from genre to album title for each MP3. Songs from legitimate sources like iTunes or a purchased CD usually have all this data embedded, Ford spokesman Alan Hall said, which allows Sync to easily categorize them. Without such information, however, many songs won't show up on request. I found this out the hard way: Asking for The Who (burned off a friend's computer) got me Queen (purchased on iTunes), and AC/DC's "Shoot to Thrill" (same computer) produced Jane's Addiction's "Superhero" (iTunes again).
I'll admit I have plenty of music from shared sources or downloaded during the Napster days. (A man in a black suit is approaching my door right now.) But so do countless other drivers, and having such songs go MIA is mighty frustrating. Missing metadata packs a second punch: Sync allows you to refine your search within an artist or playlist to show the albums, a convenient feature if you have a number of albums under a single band. But when I tried to refine my searches, the system told me it couldn't comply. Hall said that's likely because all the songs within the artist weren't properly encoded.
The order in which Sync plays your songs can be frustrating, too. It played songs in the correct order if I asked it to play an album or playlist, but when I called out an artist — say, the Smashing Pumpkins — it jumped arbitrarily from one album to another, ignoring the order of songs I'd set for the Pumpkins on my iPod. Hall said that's because in many cases Sync defaults to alphabetical ordering.
I didn't get a chance to test out the phone operation, as my Blackberry wasn't compatible beyond basic Bluetooth functions. Ford says Sync can read text messages and send one of 15 replies, which could prove useful.
Hall said that down the road Sync will partner seamlessly with the car's navigation system, so you could press a button and say "find the nearest gas station." Right now the two systems work on separate levels. The day that sort of integration comes — and all my MP3s are tagged correctly — I might be sold, but right now I'm turned off by the system's limitations. Perhaps I'm the wrong market for it, as I usually just listen to whatever's on the radio. Cars.com editor and Zune user David Thomas, on the other hand, is a serious music listener, and he raved about the feature.
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