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First Drive: 2013 Ford Fusion

Joe Loriowriter

It's fair to say that at the Ford Motor Company, they're obsessed with the Toyota Camry. It was far and away the most-mentioned competitor at the launch of the latest Fusion—and of the previous model. The Toyota Camry, after all, has been the bestselling car in America for years—even the tsunami in Japan couldn't keep it out of the top spot—but those with long memories will recall that the Camry toppled the Ford Taurus to take that top spot. Maybe that has something to do with it. You might expect that in redesigning the Fusion, Ford's Camry competitor, Ford would hew closely to the number-one rival's playbook. But Ford did not. Instead, the new Fusion very much follows Ford's own playbook.

If you've been paying attention to recent Fords—the Fiesta, the Focus, the Escape—it's pretty easy to identify the hallmarks of a new Ford: a taut body shape with lots of creases, multiple engine choices with EcoBoost playing a major role, and a heavy emphasis on high technology. The new Fusion? Check, check, and check.

It's Got The Look

Much has been made of the new Fusion's styling, which completely walked away from the previous version, instead embracing elements from Aston Martin (the front end), the Audi A7 (the tapered tail), and the Hyundai Sonata (the side view). That may be a disparate trio, but the result is a cohesive whole, and one with an undeniable family resemblance to other recent Fords.

The midsize sedan market, though, is one where practicality reigns supreme, and any design—no matter how good-looking—that seriously compromises utility is going to be a detriment. So how did Ford mate pretty with practical? Quite well, in fact. With its high beltline and steeply raked windshield and backlight, the Fusion can't come close to matching the outward visibility of the new Honda Accord, but few can. Thick A-pillars and two-piece C-pillars compromise the driver's view somewhat, but the rear package shelf is lower than you'd expect, so the view straight back is OK. (A backup camera is standard on the top-spec Titanium, optional on the volume SE, and not available on the base S.)

More critically, rear-seat space under the sloping roofline is not bad at all. The door opening is a little low, but once inside, a six-footer will find adequate headroom. And it's not achieved by lowering the seat cushion—in fact, the rear seat is comfortably high off the floor and has good under-thigh support. Legroom is good, too, but the rear seat overall does not feel as spacious as that in an Accord or a Camry.

The same is true up front. The high center console sweeps up into the dash (as in the Taurus), which looks modern and cool but also makes for a less open interior than the more conventionally styled Honda and Toyota. The interior design is a lot less splashy than the exterior, though, with gloss black trim accented with plenty of matte grays. Soft-touch areas are there where you want them, and the materials quality is consistent if hardly extravagant. All Fusions have deeply pocketed front seatbacks, and the Titanium model gets firmly bolstered seat cushions as well; lesser Fusions, though, suffer from squishy cushions that offer much less support but may be more accommodating for wide-bodied drivers.

One Car, Many Engines

The new Fusion offers many engine choices—then again, so did the old one. Whereas previously there was a four, two V-6s, and a hybrid, this time there are three fours, no V-6s, and two hybrids.

The carryover 2.5-liter is the base engine on the S and SE. Next up is a 1.6-liter EcoBoost turbo; it's optional ($795) on the SE. Ford's 2.0-liter EcoBoost stands at the top of the heap. The 2.0-liter is optional on the SE and standard on the Titanium, which also offers the option of all-wheel drive (the Fusion and the Subaru Legacy are the only cars in this class to offer AWD).

Like the Honda Accord, the Ford Fusion will offer both regular and plug-in hybrids. The latter model, the Fusion Energi, won't be out until January. The Fusion Hybrid, which blew away the field with its 47/47-mpg city/highway ratings, is going on sale now. See our quick take on that model here.

Of the mainstream Fusions, we drove the 1.6-liter, which is expected to be the volume engine, and the 2.0. With 178 hp and 184 pound-feet of torque, the EcoBoost 1.6-liter provides only marginally better output than the base four-banger's 175 hp and 175 lb-ft. It does, however, get better fuel economy. With its six-speed automatic, the 1.6-liter beats the larger engine's 22/34-mpg figures by 1 mpg in the city and 2 mpg on the highway. If you're really concerned about fuel economy, you might pony up another $295 for auto stop/start, which also includes active grille shutters and additional underbody aerodynamic aids and pushes the EPA ratings to 25/37 mpg.

In our short drive of a 1.6-liter with the auto stop/start system, we found it to be pretty well integrated. The engine doesn't shut off until you've been stopped for two seconds, which is good, and although restart isn't as smooth as in cars with an integrated starter-generator (such as GM's eAssist), the noise and vibration are much lower than in BMW's auto stop/start system. Without electric A/C, the engine needs to be running to drive the compressor, and it won't shut down if it's going to cause passengers to swelter. With temps in the high seventies, and the climate control set on 72, the engine only shut itself off about half the time during our short drive; buyers in Sunbelt states might not see much engine down time at all.

Another, more fun, way to bump up the mileage of the 1.6-liter is to pair it with the available six-speed manual. Auto stop/start is not available with the stick shift, but this pairing achieves the same 25/37-mpg rating even without it. The better news is that this is a Honda-slick shifter with friendly clutch action. It helps wake up the response of this small engine, at least subjectively, although you're not going to talk yourself into the notion that this car is a barn burner. The 1.6/manual model is also the lightest Fusion, at 3333 pounds. That figure makes the Fusion a little heavier than its Asian competitors, but the portliest Fusion, the all-wheel-drive 2.0-liter, is nearly 350 pounds heavier still.

As it happened, the 2.0-liter AWD Titanium was the Fusion that we had on the twisty, canyon-road portion of the drive, and despite its weight, it was engaging and responsive. Ford has shown real skill in chassis tuning, and that's the case here, too. Not only does the Fusion turn in eagerly and resist body roll, but it also snubs body motion yet still takes the edge off bumps. It feels taut and European—though it was developed in the USA. Even the electric power steering in the 1.6-liter and the 2.0 feels very natural and direct. This is likely the best chassis in the field.

As for the 2.0-liter turbo, it's not a slam dunk over the smaller EcoBoost unit. The bigger engine's 237 hp is shy of competitors' V-6s, although the 270 pound-feet of torque is competitive. Full-throttle performance is a little wanting; the EcoBoost is happiest in the midrange. Still, the added oomph might not be enough to offset the fuel economy penalty. The 2.0 is rated at 22 mpg city, 33 highway (31 mpg highway with AWD). That's against 21/34 mpg for the V-6 Accord and 22/34 mpg for the Hyundai Sonata turbo, both of which boast more horsepower. The 2.0, however, is the only engine in the Titanium, but virtually all of the Titanium goodies can be had on the SE.

The Apple Effect

Certainly, dazzling shoppers with high-tech goodies is another pillar of Ford's strategy, and the Fusion offers more features than any other midsize sedan. In addition to the expected navigation (optional on SE and Titanium) and rearview camera (standard on Titanium, optional on SE), Ford adds: blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, and active park assist. All are optional on SE and Titanium.

Of course, no Ford today is complete without MyFordTouch. It's avoidable on the base car, optional on the SE, and standard on the Titanium. With some models, there are knobs for volume and tuning; on others, only for volume. In nearly all Fusions, the HVAC is also a flat-panel, haptic-touch affair. As always, the workarounds are the steering-wheel controls or voice activation, but we'd rather have physical controls that don't demand so much eyes-off-the-road time.

Seductive styling, better fuel economy, a premium-feeling chassis, and up-to-the-minute technology are all supposed to impart a sense of greater value, enabling Ford to realize higher transaction prices. With the addition of a standard automatic transmission, the car's base price climbs by $995, while the new, top-spec Titanium starts at more than $30,000. Ford wants buyers to buy a Fusion because they want a Fusion, not because it's the best deal. In that sense, then, they're right with the Camry. But they got there with a very different car.

2013 Ford Fusion

On sale: Now
Base price range: $22,495-$30,995

2.5L I-4, 175 hp, 175 lb-ft
1.6L I-4 turbo, 178 hp, 184 lb-ft
2.0L I-4 turbo, 240 hp, 270 lb-ft

Drive: Front- or four-wheel

Fuel economy (city/highway/combined):
22/34/26 mpg (2.5L, automatic)
23/36/28 mpg (1.6L, automatic)
25/37/29 mpg (1.6L, manual)
22/33/26 mpg (2.0L, FWD)
22/31/25 mpg (2.0L, AWD)