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After living in the city for four years, I finally decided to grow up and buy a house. I pooled every nickel and dime I could find, and bought a quaint little fixer-upper in the heart of suburbia. There are many hipsters littering the cafes in my new 'hood, but that doesn't mean I have to turn into Mr. Wilson. After all, my inner Dennis the Menace is still in total control.
With my new locale in mind, I traded a Mitsubishi Eclipse long-term car for a brand-new 2006 Ford Fusion SEL. Got to fit in with the neighbors, right? While the name Fusion sounds like a high-revving hatchback, the car is actually a sharp midsize sedan slotted between the compact Focus and full-size Five Hundred. In other words, this is Ford's killshot aimed directly at the heart of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
The stakes in this battle are dangerously high. Ford has a few hits on its hands with the Mustang and F-150, but the sedan market is big business, and the Japanese have been dominant for years. The Fusion is meant to change all that. With sharp styling, high build quality and best-in-class value, the car offers Joe Suburbia a chance to buy a sensible family car with enough attitude to still feel like a kid.
Ford rocked the family sedan scene once before back in the 1980s with the introduction of the Taurus. While the Taurus moniker has become synonymous with "boring" in the past few years (save for the Taurus NASCAR effort, which is being phased out in favor of new Fusion NASCAR racers), the bulbous sedan offered buyers a reliable car for comparably little money.
In 2003, head stylist J Mays reimagined the Ford family sedan with an auto show concept car called the 427. The car's low roofline, three-bar grille, high beltline and hunkered-down stance harked back to the early '60s, when sedans were broad-shouldered and powerful.
The Fusion is a production interpretation of the 427 concept. In an effort to make the Fusion tighter, cleaner, and better built than any other sedan on the road, Ford completely designed, engineered, and tested the car digitally before it was made into a reality. The resulting leap in quality control is noticeable.
Its edgy lines make the Fusion appear bigger than it really is. The car is 190 inches long and 72.2 inches wide, which is extremely close to the Camry (189.2 inches long, 70.7 inches wide) and the Accord (189.5 inches long, 71.5 inches wide).
Stylewise, the car totally stands out in a sea of similar sedans. Projector-beam headlights are housed in a curving enclosure that follows the hoodline back to the fender, and clear-corner taillights lend the Fusion a hint of street-racer style. The chrome three-bar grille looks bold yet classy (especially on a black car), and 17-inch wheels (standard on SEL models) paired with dual exhaust (also standard on the SEL) clearly link the Fusion to its pony car sibling, the Mustang. Without exception, every one of our staffers thinks this new Ford is the best-looking car in its class.
Mazda arguably builds some of the best driving vehicles on the road today, so it makes sense that Ford based the Fusion on the fun-to-drive but slightly impractical Mazda 6 sedan. The front-drive platform was stretched and widened, then fortified with a rigid new structure to increase side-impact protection and torsional rigidity.
Nimble handling comes from four-wheel double-wishbone independent suspension. Four-wheel disc brakes provide plenty of stopping power. Our test vehicle came equipped as a top-of-the-line SEL model ($21,275 base price, $25,260 loaded to the gills), which includes V6 power and 17-inch alloy wheels shod in 50-series low-profile rubber.
The car feels planted and secure on tight canyon roads, and power-assist rack and pinion steering gives it a nimble feel that bests even the sporty Honda Accord. At the track, our test car ran through the slalom at 61.4 mph and came to a halt from 60 mph in 124 feet. That compares quite favorably to the Accord (60.2 mph and 133 feet) and the Camry (61.8 mph and 121.8 feet).
Base model Fusions get an aluminum inline four-cylinder, but the SEL is powered by a 3.0-liter V6 equipped with dual-overhead camshafts and variable valve timing. Output is rated at 221 horsepower at 6,250 rpm and 200 pound-feet of torque at 4,750. Those numbers are a bit shy of the V6 class average, with the Honda pumping out 240 hp and 212 lb-ft and the Toyota making 225 hp and 240 lb-ft.
However, the Fusion has the only six-speed automatic in its class, and the transmission performed beautifully with nicely matched shifts and smooth operation. In acceleration trials, the Fusion still lagged slightly behind the pack, with an 8-second 0-60 time and a 15.8-second quarter-mile run. In a recent comparison test, a V6-powered Accord and Camry both ran 0-60 in about 7.5 seconds.
Inside the Cabin
The Fusion really shines from within, where little details jump out at the driver like freshly laundered pants with a dollar bill hidden in the pocket. Soft-touch materials abound in the cabin, and fit and finish is remarkable. Every panel is perfectly aligned, and gaps are kept to a minimum. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is comfortable to hold, and loaded with easy-to-use audio and climate controls. Even the analog gauges are easy on the eyes yet somehow sporty and just a little bit different.
Settling into the driver seat, the first thing you'll notice (on SEL models at least) is the contrasting stitching in the leather seats. This wasn't necessary on Ford's part, but it really dresses up the look of the cabin. Automatic climate control comes standard on the SEL, and it works very well with a basic three-button interface. Ford even designed the duct system for quiet operation, and it became obvious on a hot August day with the A/C blasting.
With 38.7 inches of front headroom and 42.3 inches of front legroom, the Fusion feels roomy but not cavernous. And with increased hip- and shoulder room the Ford offers plenty of interior real estate to lounge around in.
On the Road
Ford executives claimed at the vehicle launch that they wanted the Fusion to drive like a four-door Mustang, and they're not far off the mark. Steering feel is excellent, and when pushed hard in a canyon the suspension stays planted with moderate understeer and minimal body roll. The car is certainly no full-race sport sedan, with a mere 221 hp on tap, but it is sporty.
The seats are extremely comfortable, the car is stunningly quiet, and the secondary controls are easy to use and understand while driving. Even the air conditioning vents are well designed and simple to operate.
I only have two complaints about the Fusion: It needs more power and a better shifter. The 221-horse V6 is fine for highway cruising, but an SVT version with a lightweight V8 (à la Taurus SHO) would be most welcome. Even the recently announced 3.5-liter global V6 would be an improvement. I'd also like to see a shifter with more than just "Drive" and "Low" as forward gear options. How about specific gates for 1st, 2nd, "Drive," and "Top Gear"?
If you simply want basis transportation from Point A to Point B, there are lots of inexpensive sedans to choose from. However, if you're looking for an affordable family hauler with enough edge, attitude, and class to stand out from the Japanese crowd, the 2006 Ford Fusion deserves a look.
System Score: 6.5
Components: The stereo in our test car was the upgraded Audiophile system. It includes eight speakers and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. The Audiophile system costs an extra $420 and has features like speed-sensitive automatic volume control and three sound profiles. Those profiles optimize the sound presence for the driver, rear-seat passengers or all occupants.
Performance: The head unit is rather bland-looking for an upgraded audio system but it works well with the sporty theme of the Fusion's interior. The controls are fairly easy to use. The only problem is the confusing "seek" buttons that seem to indicate that they're used for switching CDs in the in-dash changer. Actually, there are other buttons that are farther away and point up and down that must be used to change CDs. Bass, treble and other such functions are accessed via a simple-to-use "menu" button. The steering wheel-mounted audio controls work well with the dash-mounted knobs, and the system is capable of playing MP3-format CDs.
The sound quality is just OK. The extra money spent on the "top-of-the-line" stereo doesn't translate into stellar sound quality. One of the main problems is that bass response is very poor. In fact, the stereo sounds best when both bass and treble are turned all the way up. And even then the bass sounds muddy and rumbly rather than sharp. Plus, the highs are too bright. One of the keys to any good system is separation and this stereo does not have that. It certainly isn't an awful-sounding stereo but it could be so much better.
Best Feature: Easy-to-use head unit.
Worst Feature: Below-average sound quality.
Conclusion: For an upgraded system, this one provides only so-so sound quality. Better stop by Best Buy on the way home. -- Brian Moody
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
So, what do the domestics keep messing up when it comes to family sedans? First, they can't make a four-door car that is remotely fun to drive, à la Honda Accord. Second, they can't seem to make a sedan that oozes quality and refinement, à la Toyota Camry. Finally, they haven't mastered the art of producing a people mover that still offers a sense of style and personality, à la Nissan Altima. Basically, they make cars like the Chevrolet Malibu, Dodge Stratus and Ford Taurus.
So does the Fusion finally address these issues? Well, it's got excellent steering and a buttoned-down chassis (thank you, Mazda), so if it comes to a choice between the Accord and Fusion the Ford now has a chance. It's also got soft-touch and rich-looking materials throughout the cabin, and it's relatively quiet at highway speeds, so now the Camry isn't the obvious choice in this regard, either. And the looks? Did I mention that the Fusion is now my favorite midsize sedan in terms of styling -- especially in black with the 17-inch wheels?
I'll need to drive all the above-mentioned models back-to-back before I can finalize my feelings, but as it stands I'd definitely put the Fusion on my "must test-drive" list for a new family sedan -- right next to the Accord, Camry and Altima.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I'm surprised by how much I like this car. I recall driving the Five Hundred and being somewhat disappointed. The Fusion is modern-looking without resorting to gimmicks and the interior is comfortable as well.
The car balances sporty handling with comfort very well, although I'm the first to admit the "sporty" part will barely register with those who crave the sharpness of a BMW. Still, it's a good car that delivers looks, ride, handling and value that's easily on par with the Nissan Altima. I'd rather have a Fusion over an Accord, Altima, Camry or Malibu simply because it looks a little different but doesn't force me to make any sacrifices.
Inside, I like the contrasting stitching on the leather seats and the soft headliner. In a perfect world the Audiophile stereo would be much better and the seatbacks would be power on the SEL. But then again, the Fusion SEL is a sharp-looking, semi-sporty sedan with a V6, a six-speed automatic transmission and a starting price of $22,000. That leaves little room for complaint.
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