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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fusion Hybrid Really Winning Raves, but can you actually get your hands on one?

Had Ford CEO Alan Mulally and his FoMoCo crew driven to Washington in a 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid for the first round of begging for bailout bucks instead of boarding the gigantic public relations blunder called a corporate jet, things might have been a little easier on them. Or possibly not.

Either way, Mulally (who wouldn't even have to shout "Shotgun!" to get primo seating) would have arrived in D.C. in one of the best-driving hybrid-powered sedans. Not just one of the best-driving hybrid-powered domestic sedans, but one of the world's best.

It would no doubt surprise various members of the U.S. Senate that the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid is a match for the best hybrid sedans from Toyota and Honda.

We took our own road trip to the test track and to our regular fuel-efficiency test loop, and here is our testimony.

Like a Hybrid, Only Better
Our beef with most hybrids is that they aren't particularly good cars. At least they're not when we apply the same standards we use for a conventionally powered car. Take the Prius. It's slow. It's loud. Its steering feels horribly disconnected and its brakes are bad. Judged by the standards of people who actually like to drive cars, the Prius is an epic failure.

The Toyota Camry Hybrid, which makes fewer sacrifices for efficiency and therefore returns less fuel economy than the Prius, is a better car in the general sense, yet the shortcomings of the Camry's soggy chassis calibration are only exacerbated by the hybrid treatment.

So it was with great hope that we learned the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid promised not only a smoother, more carlike performance than others of its ilk, but also that it would achieve significantly better fuel economy in city driving (41 mpg highway, according to the EPA) than the Camry Hybrid. Really?

Our assessments on those two counts are: "True" and "Not exactly."

Drive Like a Human Being
Based on the reworked 2010 version of the Fusion, the Ford Fusion Hybrid is probably the best driving hybrid sedan on the market. This means the car asks its driver to make fewer (or at least smaller) sacrifices for its increased efficiency. The basic Fusion chassis is a fine setup, offering good road isolation while delivering confidence-inspiring handling in conditions that would have a Camry tripping over itself.

We have not yet had access to a conventionally powered 2010 Fusion for a track test, so we can't tell you how much performance is lost when Ford plugs in the hybrid system. Subjectively, it feels a like a trade-off most of us would be willing to make for the improved economy. Thanks to the electric power steering and not-very-sporty Michelin Energy MXV4S8 tires, there's less feel through the steering wheel. With 0.77g of ultimate grip on the skid pad, the hybrid wouldn't exactly be your choice for autocrossing.

But compared to the similarly sized Camry Hybrid, the Fusion Hybrid is a relatively zesty sedan. Despite their regenerative system, the Fusion's braking force feels reassuringly linear. It stops from 60 mph in 126 feet, 8 feet shorter than the Camry Hybrid (which also uses the same model Michelin tires), and with a notably smoother transition from regenerative braking to pure mechanical braking than the Camry. We noted pretty extreme brake fade, though. By our fifth emergency stop, the Fusion took a whopping 160 feet to come to a halt. We recommend that you avoid five emergency stops in a row on your way to work (perhaps you should avoid Los Angeles altogether).

The Fusion runs through our slalom at 62.2 mph, while exhibiting a good sense of control and a relatively light feel. In the words of our test driver, the Fusion delivered "a perfectly respectable handling performance." The Camry made it through at 61.6 mph, but it sure didn't want to.

With 191 horsepower combined from its 2.5-liter inline-4 engine and its electric motor, the Fusion Hybrid does not shame itself on the track, either. It gets to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds (or 8.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), which feels perfectly fine around town, partly because the electric motor serves up a good chunk of torque for initial acceleration away from a standstill. The 187-hp Camry is quicker to 60 mph with an 8.3-second performance, and we suspect the Fusion Hybrid's deficit probably has to do with the extra 215 pounds the Ford carries compared to the similarly sized Camry. The Ford hybrid tips our scales at a portly 3,801 pounds.

Honestly, though, the straight-line performance of either the Camry or the Fusion is acceptable for the duty cycle to which most owners would subject them. And the continuously variable transmissions (CVT) that transmit the power to the front wheels of these two cars feel equally weird.

Salsa Verde
We're not convinced most buyers of hybrid sedans are basing their buying decisions on tenths of a second at the racetrack, however. The figures of real interest — the overriding point to this whole hybrid rigmarole — are the fuel-economy numbers.

Ford has been making a lot of noise about the Fusion Hybrid's superiority in this regard. The company estimates that the EPA will certify the Fusion Hybrid at 41 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. These figures are 8 mpg better in the city and 2 mpg better on the highway than the Camry Hybrid.

We simply could not achieve those figures in real-world driving, though. We drove the Fusion Hybrid on the same route around Orange County, California, as we did in a recent comparison of the Camry Hybrid and Prius. This suburban loop is 177.9 miles long and we averaged 31 mph in the Fusion Hybrid. Typically, cars we've tested on this loop return fuel-economy figures a little better than their EPA city estimates. The Fusion Hybrid did not.

In fact, we could manage only 35.7 mpg. The car's onboard computer was a little generous, claiming 37 mpg. The Camry Hybrid we tested on the route (on a different day) returned 41.8 mpg and the Prius garnered 51.9 mpg.

Why was the mpg number of the Fusion Hybrid so much lower? We can safely assume that the weather conditions played a role. High winds and nonstop rain (with standing water in places) surely put the Fusion Hybrid at a disadvantage compared to the Toyotas, which were tested on a more typical sunny day in Southern California. How much is that worth? We don't know for sure — maybe 2 or 3 mpg, which would have put us closer to the car's EPA-certified city fuel economy. We'll need to test the Fusion Hybrid against its main competition on the same day and in the same conditions for a final assessment.

More stop-and-go traffic likely would have improved the Fusion Hybrid's figure, given that it can run on pure electric power up to a claimed 47 mph, about twice what other hybrids can manage. But to get that far on the speedometer under electric power takes a stupendously sensitive right foot, a full battery charge and the patience of nearby drivers.

We also note that the reconfigurable information screens on either side of the speedometer — called SmartGauge with EcoGuide by Ford — can be distracting. There's a wealth of information (certainly in the most detailed of the four modes called Empower), and the graphics are pleasant and modern, but it takes some discipline to avoid becoming fixated on the pretty lights. The far right screen displays leaves and branches. The more sensibly you drive, the fuller your bush becomes. (This is useful mostly as fodder for off-color jokes.)

Livin' It
As with all hybrids, the 2009 Ford Fusion Hybrid asks you to make some day-to-day compromises for increased efficiency beyond performance metrics.

For example, the Fusion Hybrid uses a second-generation nickel-metal hydride battery pack that's smaller and more powerful than the unit used in the Escape Hybrid. That's an admirable achievement, but the battery still steals a bit of space from the backseat room and the trunk. Compared to a standard new Fusion, second-row passengers in the hybrid will have about a half-inch less legroom, while the luggage capacity goes from a cavernous 16.5 cubic feet to a snug 11.8 cubic feet.

Then there's the issue of price. When it goes on sale in the spring of 2009, the Fusion Hybrid will start at $27,995 (including destination charge). That's $8,000 more than the lowliest front-drive, four-cylinder 2010 Fusion. It's only about $500 shy of the top 3.5-liter-V6-powered all-wheel-drive Fusion Sport. More to the point, the Fusion Hybrid bases at $1,125 more than a 2009 Camry Hybrid. With options, this 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid came to $30,830.

As ever, if you base your decision solely on the cost of ownership, it'll be awhile before the hybrid's increased fuel mileage will make up for the increased cost of entry, compared to, say, a base-model Fusion four-cylinder, which Ford estimates will return about 33 mpg on the highway.

But for buyers in this market, that's not the only consideration. And the "Hybrid" badges on the flanks and the trunk lid count for a whole lot to our congressional representatives, who probably had no idea that a domestic company was capable of producing a competitive hybrid sedan.

So listen, Al (we can call you Al, right, Mr. Mulally?), next time you're saddling up for a road trip, give us a ring. We'll happily join you. But if we're driving, we control the stereo. Them's the rules of the road, man.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.


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