Ford’s 2006 Fusion – a better idea – at just the right time

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Not since the once-vaunted Taurus left the building about a decade ago has Ford produced a car capable of going head-to-head in sales with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

Ford once had bragging rights to the best-selling car in America. The Taurus was a ground-breaking aerodynamic sedan when it was introduced in 1986, perhaps the most important vehicle of that decade next to the Chrysler minivans. It soon gained status as the best selling car in America.

It certainly was the most important vehicle of the decade for Ford, which was losing market share in the mid-80s. Taurus single-handily rescued the Blue Oval.

It ushered in the era of the so-called jellybean shape. Its design was copied by virtually all automakers.

Taurus still lives in rental fleets, and more than a quarter million units were sold in 2004. But it has been nearly a decade since it dominated the market, losing its edge in a 1996 redesign that did not resonate with the car-buying public.

Not since the debut of the original Taurus has Ford turned out a midsized sedan with the potential to shake up the family sedan segment — until now.

We certainly won’t predict that the Fusion will ever reach the lofty heights of 400,000 sales a year once enjoyed by the Taurus, but it is perhaps the best family sedan that Ford has ever produced, including the original Taurus.

We are not here to tell you that the Fusion is superior to the Camry, which sold 427,000 units in 2004, or the Accord, which racked up 387,000 sales, both of which continue to excel in what is probably the most whacky car market in years. We will tell you that Ford’s Fusion deserves a similar piece of the action as the Honda or Toyota.

What we came away with after a California launch drive and a week behind the wheel of a top-of-the-line Fusion SEL was admiration for Ford, which has created a sedan that can compete on equal footing with the vaunted Japanese brands and with the all-new and highly praised Hyundai Sonata as well.

It’s hard to ask for more in the current, hotly contested segment. And its introduction could not come at a better time for the beleaguered Ford Motor Company that is in the midst of a massive reorganization to make the company viable in all of its markets around the world.

Ironically, the Fusion has got more ‘foreign’ in it than the three aforementioned nameplates, which are all built in the USA. The Fusion is assembled in Mexico and rides on the outstanding global Mazda6 platform.

To set the table, the Fusion is virtually the same size as the Camry and Accord, an inch longer than the Camry and an inch shorter than the Accord at 190.2 inches on a wheelbase — 107.4 inches — that is nearly identical to the Japanese benchmarks. Curb weight is also within 50 pounds — heavier than the Camry but lighter than the Accord at 3,452 pounds.

The Fusion can be purchased in base form with a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine generating 160 horsepower mated to either a 5-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic transmission. A 221-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 is available on the SE and SEL trim levels mated to a first-in-class 6-speed automatic.

Forget the statistics for a minute and take a test drive.

The Fusion has a European demeanor, heavy and substantial. It feels terrifically stable and well planted. The steering is not American-car light, rather a feel of euro center on and weighty in hand that makes for comfort and confidence and excellent responsiveness.

The one downside we noticed almost immediately in a parking lot is that the turning radius is too wide — about 39 feet. You won’t slip right into a tight spot without perhaps backing and coming in again.

The 6-speed automatic has a fluid, nearly seamless shift. And the tip-in point is more on the European side of the equation, virtually eliminating jackrabbit starts for the heaviest of foot.

More than once over the past couple of years we wished that Ford would add more horses to its sedan engines. And so it is with the Fusion. But the Fusion with 221 steeds and 205 pound-feet of torque, performs well enough that you soon forget about the published output and enjoy the actual driving experience with power coming in a steady stream through the gears.

For comparison purposes, the V-6 will propel the sedan from 0 to 60 in 7.4 seconds and complete a quarter mile in 15.7 seconds at 91 miles per hour, according to published statistics. That’s slightly faster than the Camry and almost a second slower than the Accord. None of them will win a drag, but none of them have to excite buff-book writers in order to enjoy success in the marketplace.

Perhaps the trump card here is gas mileage. The Fusion V-6 has a solid rating of 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway.

Thankfully, Ford has deviated from the friendly confines of ultra-conservative styling — see the Ford Five Hundred — and decided to take some chances. The result is a captivating take on the 427 concept car that thrilled audiences at the Detroit Auto Show in 2003. Three prominent horizontal chrome grille bars and rectangular projector-beam headlights give the Fusion a front-end like no other in the segment.

Rectangular backup lights are integrated into a chrome-encased triangular taillight assembly. It gives the Ford a unique, unmistakable look from the rear. A chrome bar surrounding the company logo at the top edge of the trunk lid over the license plate casing is another premium touch not found on any other mid-size. Seventeen-inch aluminum wheels gave our test car an even more upscale look.

Ford also paid close attention to details inside Fusion too. Materials are of good quality and fit and finish is on a par with Hondas and Toyotas.

The dashboard has a handsome look with knobs and switches that work smoothly and have a quality feel. The gauges are large and easy to read, each with its own chrome surround. An analog clock with a polished bezel, a standard in premium cars, is found atop the center stack in the SEL giving the interior an additional upscale touch. And at night, virtually all the controls are lighted.

Ford has decided to go with piano-black polished trim pieces across the dashboard instead of the faux wood used in the top trim level of just about every car over 20 grand these days. It’s a very pleasant change and it looks great. Another nice touch is a rattle free storage box integrated into the top of the dash panel.

The steering wheel tilts and telescopes. Space is plentiful up front with firm but comfortable and supportive seats. A comfortable driving position was easily obtained.

Many people buying mid-size cars, it seems to us, carry adults in the back on a regular basis. And the Fusion has good leg room and comfortable rear seats with easy ingress and egress. The rear seats can be folded into a 40-60 split configuration to add cargo space to the trunk’s adequate 16 cubic feet.

The Fusion comes at an attractive price. For instance, the top-of-the-line SEL model starts at $22,360. After options the bottom line on our SEL test car came to $25,650. We think it unfortunate that two of those items — antilock brakes at $595 and traction control at $95 — are not standard equipment on a car of this caliber. Other safety items such as front side airbags and front to rear head protection curtains are available at extra cost as well.

The Fusion starts at $17,795 for the 4-cylinder S trim line with manual transmission.
Even the base model has full power accessories, air conditioning, stereo with CD and four speakers and keyless entry. We think that Ford should look at competitive pricing including the now optional safety equipment that will make comparative pricing easier in some cases.

Never-the-less, the new Fusion is indeed a family sedan that rivals the best products on the market. Ford got this one just about right.

Under the heading – if you have a good thing, exploit it – you’ll find that Mercury has an upscale version of the Fusion, called the Milan, now in showrooms. Lincoln has a luxury version called the Zephyr as well and it will have an LCD screen with DVD navigation available.

It’s remarkable how different they look and the numerable amount of tweaks that set them apart. For our money though it’s the Fusion, for the looks and the value. Indeed, sometimes Ford does have a better idea.