Image: Ford Fusion Hybrid
The Ford Fusion Hybrid, which our reviewer calls the best hybrid model on the U.S. market.
By contributor
updated 1/6/2010 12:01:52 PM ET 2010-01-06T17:01:52

Some new cars gain notoriety for a specific attribute, like artful style, sublime comfort or incomparable safety. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is gaining fame for introducing the idea that U.S. carmakers can take the lead in fuel-saving, hybrid-electric drivetrain technology.

That may surprise drivers who have paid only passing attention to hybrids, and it may upset those who worship at the throne of Toyota. But the truth is that the Ford Fusion Hybrid is the best hybrid model in the U.S. market.

It is the best in the U.S. in part because it is the best for the U.S. It wears no egg-shaped hypermile bodywork, doesn’t ask its occupants to contort themselves to fit inside like the old pack-college-students-in-a-VW stunt and doesn’t demand any creative financing for regular Americans with regular jobs to purchase it.

Instead, the Fusion sits demurely in the driveway, offering no commentary on the neighbors’ lack of environmental concern. Yet for a base price of $27,270 (right around the new-car average of $25,500), customers can buy a fuel-efficient family sedan that easily carries five normal-sized people in comfort. It also has sufficient trunk space for their luggage, a compliant suspension and enough high-tech gizmos and widgets to evoke a smile from even the most indifferent automotive appliance owner.

Motor Trend magazine named the model its Car of the Year for 2010 and it is one of three finalists for the North American Car of the Year award to be announced Monday. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the panel that votes on the latter award.)

The EPA says the Fusion Hybrid gets 41 mpg in the city and 36 mpg highway. In a week of mixed suburban driving, the test model scored 38 mpg. The Prius gets 50 mpg on the EPA’s city test, but that extra 9 mpg is not worth the tradeoffs in space, ride and handling for many customers.

My gas mileage was achieved in normal driving, with no babying it to boost efficiency. But the  Fusion does have a novel dashboard video display that shows virtual vines which can, if the car is driven gently, sprout leaves to produce a nice, healthy-looking dashboard garden.

Failure to drive in a way that cultivated this garden sparked howls of outrage from the back seat, where my kids complained I was killing the leaves as they disappeared. So while it would be easy to dismiss the efficiency display as a silly gimmick, it is a hard-to-ignore reminder that with just a bit lighter pressure on the pedal, the Fusion Hybrid can get spectacularly good mileage. Hypermile fanatics do even better, but there are few regular drivers who are interested in driving as if the fuel in the tank is their last.

Ford previously launched a hybrid version of its Escape SUV, but it was more primitive than the Fusion. In addition its size and weight conspired against it, so the Escape only gets about 25 mpg in everyday mixed driving, hardly enough to bother buying a hybrid.

The Fusion features Ford’s second-generation hybrid system, a design which, like the one in the Escape, is technically similar to that used by Toyota. The Fusion Hybrid goes Toyota one better with its ability to drive on electric-only power at speeds as high as 47 mph. That electric power ultimately comes from gasoline in hybrid electric cars, but it is still fun to know that you can drive on electric-only power for longer periods and higher speeds, keeping the gas engine shut off. The Prius automatically starts its gas engine at 25 mph.

Image: Dashboard of Ford Fusion
Ford Motor Co.
A virtual garden grows on the dashboard display if you drive the Fusion gently.
Because of the conceptual similarities the companies recognized the potential for inadvertent infringement of one another’s patents, so they wisely signed a cross-licensing agreement to avoid future legal headaches. It was a good plan but unfortunately was portrayed by some as a case of Ford buying Toyota’s technology. Ford’s design is entirely its own. The cross-licensing agreement was just an immunization against a plague of lawyers.

Ford’s less-heralded but skilled engineers also achieved a smooth driveability as the car switches modes between gas and electric when driving and between regenerating electricity and using regular hydraulic brakes when stopping. It is still possible to detect some of the mode changes, especially as the car regenerates power when slowing, but Ford’s balance of these modes is the best execution in a constantly improving science.

Ford has improved the whole Fusion model line for 2010. The original Fusion was a handsome car with strong specifications that promised to deliver an experience that would place the car ahead of the likes of Honda’s Accord. Alas, some of the details were amiss in that first iteration. It was a good, but not great, car. 

For 2010, Ford has made the Fusion great. They tweaked the steering to make the car respond to input more faithfully. They upgraded the interior, with soft surfaces on the dashboard replacing hard plastic. They freshened the exterior styling to keep the car up-to-date in appearance. The result is a car that beats Accord and Camry across the whole model line. But the hybrid is the gem in Fusion’s crown and serves notice that Ford and the rest of the domestic industry should not be overlooked as relics of the industrial age.

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