|NOW that the Fusion has restored Fordís standing as a maker of top-flight family sedans, it might perform one other service: kicking the Taurus, its couch-potato roommate, out of the apartment.
For five years, the Fusion and the reborn Taurus have coexisted uneasily in showrooms. The Taurus had been treated heedlessly by Ford, relegated to rental fleets and finally put down in 2006 ó an undignified end for a sedan that had been Americaís best seller of 1992-97. Then Ford clumsily revived the name, re-christening its tepid Five Hundred sedan as a Taurus before creating the underwhelming model offered today.
In contrast, the second-generation Fusion, with its rakish style and engaging performance, belongs on any midsize sedan shopping list. And Ford loyalists, unless they prefer a cinder block to Cinderella, can skip the larger, less space-efficient Taurus.
Thatís because the Fusion runs the midsize bases and bowls over lingering misconceptions about Detroitís ability to make top-notch family cars.
A requisite bottom-line version, the Fusion S, lures bargain hunters with a $22,495 base price and a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that makes 170 horsepower.
The Fusion SE, at $24,495 and up, sprinkles in 17-inch wheels and other goodies, and for another $795 you can add a 179-horse 1.6-liter turbocharged Ecoboost 4-cylinder. A fuel-saving stop-start system ó it cuts the engine when the car isnít moving ó is $295 more.
Adding muscle, with a 2-liter, 240-horse turbo 4-cylinder, kicks the SEís starting price to $26,745.
I tested two upper-tier models, including the Fusion Hybrid that starts at $27,995. Its 47 m.p.g. rating crushes midsize rivals, including the Toyota Camry Hybrid, beneath its green feet.
My other test car was a Fusion Titanium with a base price of $30,995; all-wheel drive costs $2,000 more. Options, including a navigation system, kicked my maxed-out Titanium test car to $37,670. That is $3,450 more than the most expensive Honda Accord sedan, the V-6 Touring, though the Honda doesnít offer all-wheel drive.
Every Fusion gets a handsome metal wrapper that puts it among the few family sedans ó the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima are others ó to poke their heads above the sea of anonymity. The Ford leads with an Anglophile face: a ribbed Aston Martin-style grille that seems a vestige of Fordís previous ownership of that British marque. Perhaps Fordís leaders borrowed the look on the reasoning that, since Aston never made them a dime, they might as well get something out of the deal.
I may be the only one to find that social-leaping grille a bit overweening; it reminds me of the days when Chrysler 300 owners would proudly tack on fake Bentley grilles. When Iíve asked Ford designers about Aston influence, they claim to not see it, which is rather like Coldplay saying, ďU2? Never heard of íem, mate.Ē
Strands of the Hyundai Sonata also play through the Fusionís sweeping roofline and rear end. Sources aside, the Fusion will brighten gray suburban driveways as few family sedans can.
The cabin is comfortable and uncluttered. Unfortunately, only the Titanium includes a Sony audio system with sleeker flush-mounted controls. The clean-and-simple theme is undermined by MyFord Touch, which combines a sometimes dodgy touch screen with a pair of configurable LCD screens flanking the speedometer. The system manages navigation, phone, audio and other functions with touch controls, voice commands or steering wheel buttons. Operating the system gets easier after you climb the learning curve, and this latest version seemed quicker to respond to inputs.
Still, every time I use MyFord Touch, I imagine a digitally challenged grandparent being flummoxed or distracted ó and driving off a cliff.
Add the irritations of MyFord Touch to a growing list of consumer grievances against Ford. These include a problem-plagued dual-clutch transmission (used in the Fiesta and Focus, but not the new Fusion), several large recalls and the brandís plunge ó to 27th place out of 28 auto brands ó in Consumer Reportsí reliability ratings.
The 2013 Fusion was too new, however, to be included in the 2012 Consumer Reports survey, which was released last week.
Yet judged strictly on performance, the Ford is a marvel. It is a bona fide driverís car, the rare family sedan that loves a curve-chucking detour on the way to work. The chassis, suspension, brakes and steering all rank at the top of the class, or near it. The Fusion sets the sporty sedan standard over formidable new rivals like the Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat, leaving the Honda Accord as its closest competitor.
The 2-liter Ecoboost, especially when burdened with the extra weight of all-wheel drive, is a tad slower than some rivalsí turbo 4s and V-6s. Equipped this way, the Fusion accelerates from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in a still-respectable 6.8 seconds. The engine is also smoother and sweeter-sounding than, say, the competing Hyundai Sonata Turbo. And all of the Ford Ecoboostís solid 270 pound-feet of torque, managed through a 6-speed automatic transmission, is on tap at a low 3,000 r.p.m.
The 2-liter, all-wheel-drive model is the least fuel-efficient Fusion at 22 miles per gallon in town and 31 on the highway. Choosing front drive raises the highway fuel economy to 33 m.p.g.
As with many turbos, however, Fordís drumbeat claims of V-6 power with 4-cylinder mileage become suspect when you dip into the power supply. I averaged 22 m.p.g. with the Titanium test car.
The smaller 1.6-liter Ecoboost improves fuel economy to 23 city, 36 highway, with a 6-speed automatic. A 6-speed manual gearbox is also offered, but only with the 1.6 engine.
The cheapest Fusion, with its carried-over 2.5 engine, is rated at 22 city, 34 highway, and is perhaps best left for the rental-car companies.
But considering the typical Detroit sedan of even a decade ago, the new Fusion is a revelation, so sophisticated over the road that enthusiasts will be looking for the missing VW badge.
Yes, Ford has taken a beating in recent consumer ratings, but give it some credit: across a big chunk of its lineup, from the Fiesta subcompact and Focus compact to the Fusion, Mustang, Explorer and Flex, the company has nailed the ride and handling formula for mainstream cars.
If Ford can also get a handle on the issues dragging it down, the Fusion could be the first Detroit car in years to challenge the Accord as the criticsí choice among family sedans.