The Fusion debuted in 2005, but it still looks quite fresh. Only a small badge on the rear decklid tells you that this isn't a regular, front-wheel-drive Fusion. The styling is not as expressive as recently redesigned competitors like the Chevrolet Malibu, but it's still clean and a bit more interesting to look at than a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry.
The all-wheel-drive setup likewise does not produce big changes in the way the car drives - and that's also fine. The Fusion, based on the same platform as the Mazda 6, feels smooth yet buttoned down, absorbing bumps with alacrity while maintaining its composure through on-ramps and sudden maneuvers. Steering is a bit heavy and slow, but it is direct and provides a good amount of feedback. The extra driving wheels seem to pay off with more balanced cornering than you'd normally expect from a workaday mid-size sedan. Torque steer is also less pronounced than that of most competitors, but this could just be because the Fusion has less torque on call to begin with. Indeed, the Fusion's Achilles' heel remains its engine. The 221-hp V-6 isn't exactly anemic, but when nearly every mid-size sedan is bringing more than 250 hp to the table, it's a clear handicap. (Thankfully, the 3.0-liter V-6 in the revised '10 model will produce 240 hp, while the fresh 3.5-liter option will offer 263 hp.)
No complaints about the Fusion's interior. Finely stitched black leather seats are nicely bolstered and have adjustable lumbar support. Soft-touch materials aren't hard to find, while knobs and switchgear all feel even with, if not a notch above, those of class leaders. Our Fusion also has a class-competitive complement of technology, thanks to navigation and Sync. The only annoyance I found inside is the multifunction control stalk, a sort of proto-iDrive that seemingly every automaker save Ford and Chrysler have abandoned. As a result, it's difficult to signal for a turn without inadvertently spraying windshield washer fluid, flashing your high beams, and generally making a fool of yourself. But that's a small niggle in an otherwise high-caliber interior.
As surprising as the Fusion is in its composure and overall refinement, perhaps the best thing about this model is that it will soon be earnestly revised. This is a welcome change of strategy from a company that has long been content to release decent cars and then let them rot with no improvements. In the meantime, the current Fusion is a quietly competent alternative to the more ubiquitous segment leaders. It won't make you think you're in a sport sedan, but neither will it bring back queasy memories of old Tauruses and Tempos.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor