Hybrid Meets Hypermiling in Ford Fusion

Hybrid Meets Hypermiling in Ford Fusion

The new Ford Fusion Hybrid isn't shaped like an almond. It doesn't have badges shouting "hybrid" from every surface. And it won't make you sacrifice fun for fuel efficiency. That's what makes it so great.

Of course, fuel economy is the first thing you think when you think hybrids, and the Fusion is a first-rate miser. The EPA says it's good for 39 mpg (combined city and highway), and we averaged 36.6 during a week of daily driving. The gas gauge barely budged despite hellish commutes, occasional lead-footed sprints and wanton use of the A/C. You've got to really try hard to get lousy mileage in this car.

Ford scored a direct hit on the Camry Hybrid, topping the Toyota by 5 mpg, and almost took down the 41-mpg Honda Insight. But as Ford was shooting for fuel efficiency, it didn't forget a car should be fun to drive and a joy to use. On that score, the Fusion excels. It combines excellent fit and finish with smooth driving dynamics in a handsome mid-size sedan that also happens to get excellent mileage.

That fuel economy is as impressive as the drivetrain Ford designed for the Fusion. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine carefully tweaks intake valve timing and raises the compression ratio to increase efficiency. Low-end oomph suffers as a result, but the electric motor makes up for it and the gas-electric combo provides 191 horsepower. That isn't much in a car that weighs 3,720 pounds, and the Fusion doesn't sprint off the line so much as it sashays. While you won't win any pink slips in a car that needs 9.2 seconds to reach 60 mph, merging into that small hole in traffic is no problem. The electric motor provides abundant torque.

The beauty of Ford's hybrid system is it has none of the shudder or lag often experienced in hybrids when the electric motor hands off propulsion to the gasoline engine. It's seamless, as is the electronic continuously variable transmission. Ford muttered something about "proprietary" when we asked how it pulled that off, then mentioned the terms "variable cam timing" and "variable voltage converter" before saying it had nothing more to say.

The Fusion is a full hybrid, so if you use a light touch on the accelerator you can tool around on electric power -- although the engine will come on if you need a little boost getting away from a stoplight or up a hill. If you're gentle with your right foot, you can go as fast as 47 mph on electric power alone. We got a thrill every time we pulled it off, but you can only get a mile or so out of the battery before the engine kicks on to top off the charge. When the engine did come on, we used remarkably little gas. Our personal best was 51.5 mpg (according to the extremely accurate dashboard computer) during a 2.3-mile errand, and we burned just two-tenths of a gallon during one 12-mile commute home. That works out to 47.6 mpg. Ford says the Fusion has a range of 700 miles from its 17-gallon fuel tank. Sounds about right, based on our experience.

The Fusion is as fun to drive as it is easy on gas. The suspension is pillow-soft, and a front-wheel-drive car approaching 2 tons can't be called nimble, but the chassis felt tight and Fusion was sure-footed. We took a freeway cloverleaf at 60 and the 17-inch tires didn't even squeal. Steering was responsive and the brakes lacked the squishiness you often feel in hybrids. Regenerative braking returns to the battery 94 percent of the energy otherwise lost to heat and friction.

Ford's still using a 1.4 kilowatt-hour nickel-metal hydride pack, but it's smaller and lighter than the one in the Escape Hybrid. It sits behind the back seat and takes a big bite out of the trunk. There's just 11.8 cubic feet of storage space compared to the gas-burner's 16.5, and you can't fold the rear seats down.

One of the coolest things about the Fusion Hybrid is the SmartGauge dashboard display. It turns hypermiling into a videogame that makes you want to save fuel. The traditional speedometer is flanked by two LCDs showing everything from how much gas you've got to how much energy you're generating while braking. A glowing vine off to the right grows increasingly lush as your efficiency climbs. We almost cheered whenever another leaf appeared. It's brilliant, and it does a remarkable job showing how driving style effects fuel economy. An intuitive menu lets you choose one of four displays, each presenting more information. You can shut it off, but it's so much fun you won't want to.

Fuel efficiency doesn't count for much if you don't like driving the car. But the Fusion is more than comfortable; it's inviting. The seats -- ours were heated leather -- are firm and supportive. The steering wheel and console-mounted shifter feel great. Switches and knobs are readily at hand. The optional Sony 12-speaker system provides impressive sound and Sync remains the best media integration system on four wheels. The fit and finish are excellent, nothing feels cheap and everything is thoughtfully laid out.

Even the bare-bones Fusion Hybrid is decked out with features like stability and traction control, six airbags and power everything, including a six-way adjustable driver's seat. It's a car you could live with, without ticking off options. Ford sent us one loaded with optional electronic nannies. The blind-spot detection system flashes a small yellow light when someone's over your shoulder. It's reassuring, especially in heavy traffic. The rear-view camera makes backing up a breeze. Visibility out of the car is good enough that youdon't need the camera, but we loved having it.

The Fusion Hybrid is more than a great car. It is an example for others to follow. Hybrids will become increasingly common as automakers strive to meet the government's tough new fuel efficiency standards. If those cars are to truly catch on, they can't be any different than cars consumers already know and love. Ford has proven they don't have to be.



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