Fusion takes a while to make a good impression
By James Healey
Ford's 2006 Fusion midsize sedan is a very good car that could make a bad first impression.
First, the oversize, garish Ford blue oval emblems on the grille and trunk will scare off import-favoring buyers who finally are willing to give Detroit a chance but are reluctant to advertise the fact. The big badges are part of Ford Motor's newfound, darn-right-it's-a-Ford assertiveness. The remodeled '06 Explorer also has the big badges.
Once inside, the steering will seem too firm at first, especially to those who are used to the soft-touch, overboosted feel typified by a Toyota Camry.
The stiff ride will seem harsh initially; the prompt brakes, touchy; supportive seats, unyielding.
But those quickly become pluses, making other vehicles feel too soft, too sloppy. If dealers are smart enough to allow overnight or weekend test drives, potential buyers will come to like the sporty character of the Fusion. It replaces the long-running Taurus and is slotted in Ford's lineup between the small Focus and large Five Hundred.
Fusion's optional 3-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission are based on what's in the Five Hundred sedan, introduced a year ago. But the Fusion engine is tuned to produce 221 horsepower instead of the 203 hp in the heavier Five Hundred. As a result, the Fusion is a fun charger, while the Five Hundred isn't. (The big car, however, offers not only more room but also effective all-wheel drive, while Fusion is front-drive only.)
Underneath, Fusion is based on the Mazda6 sedan. Ford owns 33.4% of Mazda, enough to give it management control. Ford stretched and widened the Mazda6 package to give it real midsize space, overcoming one of the 6's major shortcomings. Even so, Fusion's not as long, tall, wide or roomy as the Taurus it replaces.
Ford also stiffened the chassis and enlarged the brakes. Fusion feels solid and agile, not quite as excitingly edgy or overly caffeinated as the Mazda6 sometimes does.
The Ford inherits a too-wide turning-circle diameter from the layout of the Mazda suspension: 39 or 40 feet, depending on tires. As a result, Fusion is hard to park in a single maneuver. That'll eat at you every day.
Impressions from 600 highway, 300 around-town miles in a high-end, regular-production, SEL V-6 test car priced about $25,500:
• Stylish. If you can overlook the too-big Ford emblems, the appearance is as crisp as the handling. Fusion's rising wedge silhouette looks vaguely foreign — Italian or German, certainly not the boring look of most Asian cars.
But the rising rear results in a high package shelf inside, cutting visibility. And the raised trunk leans in the direction of BMW's rump uglification.
All Fusion models have a chrome grille — well, shiny plastic, not the real chromed metal of yore — which looks distinctive instead of low-class, as its description sounds. The silvered schnoz is especially right on platinum-colored cars. Dual exhaust pipes on V-6 models are a lovely touch — Detroit reclaiming a provocative styling signature from Japanese brands that have appropriated it.
Inside, contrasting stitching sets off the leather seats nicely. And most leathered models come with so-called piano black plastic dashboard trim instead of fake wood. Piano black is a deep, glossy finish resembling a highly polished piano. Nicer than phony wood.
Big, round gauges are easy to read and big-button controls are easy to use. The only apparent common-sense gaffe is that the radio tunes via rocker switches instead of a big, round knob.
• Punchy. The tweaked 3-liter Duratec V-6 scoots admirably when spurred, and growls a bit doing so. Ford didn't scrub out the sound of an engine hustling hard.
The V-6 comes only with a six-speed automatic. It generally slips gracefully among the gears, but it has the too-common problem of pausing, then lurching into a lower gear when the driver floors the gas for passing or merging. There's no way to shift manually among the gears, a disappointment.
Traction control on the V-6 test car was just right — perhaps unique in all the industry. It allowed tire spin when starting forcefully on slick roads and gradually eased the spinning without trying to stop it, allowing the car to keep moving forward as traction was gained. It should be unusually effective in winter and whenever some spinning helps forward progress.
A 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine rated 160 hp is standard in all Fusion models, and it's available with five-speed manual or automatic transmission. The four-cylinder model wasn't available for testing.
• Tossable. The tight suspension, nearly identical on all versions, keeps the car stable and secure in corners and emergency maneuvers. Big, secure-feeling brakes comfortably haul down the machine from frisky speeds and feel satisfying doing so.
Fusion isn't as much fun to drive as a Volkswagen Passat is, but Fusion's not far behind, offers a roomier interior and lower price. Fusion is a lot more engaging behind the wheel than a typical Asian sedan.
• Roomy. Power-switch pods on the door panels swipe space for your outboard leg, but otherwise the car feels more spacious than its dimensions suggest. Rear seat is comfortable for two, tight for three.
Ford's created an arresting blend of Detroit exuberance, Germanic, no-nonsense road manners and South Korean prices ($18,000-$26,000).
If time proves that Fusion also delivers top-tier Japanese reliability, what a sweet and hard-to-beat package that would be.
2006 Ford Fusion
• What is it? Midsize, front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan replacing the Ford Taurus. Fusion is based on an enlarged version of the Mazda6 chassis and is manufactured at Saltillo, Mexico.
• How soon? Went on sale last month.
• How much? Base four-cylinder S starts at $17,795, including $650 destination charge. V-6 SEL with all options is $26,445. Expect discounts of $700 to $1,000 from window-sticker price, online car-shopping services say.
• Who'll buy? Ford says 55% will be women, typically 25 to 39 years old, with median annual household income of $65,000. About 55% of buyers will have college degrees, and most will be hip, savvy and fans of the Internet, which is where Ford will heavily market Fusion.
• How many? 270,000 per year, more or less.
• What're the drivetrains? Standard: 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine rated 160 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, 150 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm; five-speed manual transmission. Optional: 3-liter V-6 rated 221 hp at 6,250 rpm, 205 lbs.-ft. at 4,800 rpm; six-speed automatic transmission.
Traction control is $95 option but requires optional anti-lock brakes and V-6 engine.
• What's the safety gear? Routine array of belts and bags. Side-impact bags, head-curtain air bags and anti-lock brakes are extra-cost options.
• What's the rest? Standard features on all models include air conditioning: AM/FM/CD/MP3-compatible stereo; power steering, brakes, windows, mirrors; tilt-adjustable and telescoping steering column; cruise control; folding rear seats; P205/60x16 tires.
• How big? Similar to Honda Accord inside and out. Fusion is 190.2 inches long, 72.2 inches wide, 57.2 inches tall on a 107.4-inch wheelbase. Ford says passenger space is 100 cubic feet and trunk space is 15.8 cubic feet. Weighs 3,101 to 3,280 pounds, depending on model.
• How thirsty? Four-cylinder manual transmission is rated 23 miles per gallon in town, 31 highway; four-cylinder automatic is 24/32. V-6, available only with automatic, is 21/29. Trip computer in V-6 test car showed 23.9 mpg after 600 highway, 300 in-town miles. Regular gas is specified.
The gas cap on Fusion and other 2006 Fords says, "Ford recommends BP" gasoline. That's not a technical recommendation. The vehicles run fine on any good brand, Ford acknowledges. It's a marketing partnership, steering Ford owners to BP stations while letting Ford enjoy some image rub-off from BP's pro-environment advertising.
• Overall: Best thing Ford's done in a long time (Mustang excepted) and, like Chevrolet's '06 Impala, an excellent alternative to the foreign-brand models often considered the benchmarks.