ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA Domestic carmakers talk a good ass-kicking game but rarely muster the will to heave boots in anger. Witness how the Honda Accord has romped unchallenged through the heart of the car market for thirty years. The first-generation Ford Taurus kept the Accord honest, but only until Ford let its bull wither into a steer with no snort. That makes the arrival of a new Fusion sedan with ass kicking at the top of its agenda this fall's major surprise.
The name is appropriate, because the new chrome-faced four-door is the fusion of a Mazda platform with Ford design and engineering. Instead of beating around the hardware-sharing bush, chief engineer Brian Vought acknowledges that 40 percent of the Mazda 6's chassis is carried over with minimal changes. That's great news, because the 6 was born under the zoom-zoom sign, and Mazda engineers willingly pointed out their car's weaknesses so that Ford could fix them.
Stretching the 6's width and wheelbase by 2.1 inches and its length by 3.4 inches spotted the Fusion in the upper half of the mid-size segment, where the Accord, the Nissan Altima, and the Toyota Camry live. Ford raised structural stiffness by 10 percent, increased braking capacity, widened the wheel tracks, and moved the maximum tire size up a notch from 215/50VR-17 to 225/50VR-17. Under the hood, Mazda's spunky 2.3-liter four and Ford's trusty Duratec 3.0-liter V-6 are back for another go. The most notable powertrain upgrade is a new Aisin six-speed automatic that's standard in the V-6 Fusion and some Mazda 6 models.
The platform-sharing train usually derails about now with well-intentioned softening and weight hikes. Fortunately, Ford resisted the temptation to squish the suspension and to layer in hundreds of sound-deadening pounds. The Fusion is a fit fighter with no weight gain, tight damping, stout brakes, and interior trim more reminiscent of Audis than Altimas.
Hurling the Fusion through North Carolina mountain bends, we felt two of Vought's top three priorities: more attitude than the Camry, more ability than the Accord. The steering talks to you in self-assured tones, never asking for a mid-turn correction. The wheels stroke through eight inches of travel to soak up bumps and maintain equilibrium. The body refuses to pitch and roll when heavy feet tread the pedals.
One fault is an automatic that won't play the sport-sedan game. In lieu of a manual-shift mode, there's an L position calibrated to provide engine braking into turns and delayed shifts when you pour on the go juice while exiting bends. Something was amiss during our drive, resulting in full-throttle upshifts far in advance of the 6550-rpm redline. Vought is investigating.
The third item on his priority list is affordability. By making ABS optional and saving ESP and a navigation system for later, the base Fusion starts at $17,995, undercutting the Hyundai Sonata by $500. Add a V-6 and leather trim, and the sticker rises to $24,000, which is still a couple thousand below Accord and Camry flagships. In other words, Ford is serious about kicking its way back into the mid-size-car business.
Price: $21,275 (V-6)
Engine: 3.0L DOHC V-6, 221 hp, 205 lb-ft