Back in 1986, the Taurus was heralded as the car that would save Ford Motor Company. And it did. Now, 20 years later the same monumental responsibility has been thrust upon the 2006 Ford Fusion.
Although its outgoing Taurus sold 6.7 million units in its 21-year run, Ford has never really offered a proper midsize sedan to battle the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and Toyota Camry -- until now. Positioned with neat alliteration between the Focus and the Five Hundred, Ford hopes the Fusion will bridge the long-standing abyss in the company's product lineup.
A Mazda Underneath
Although it's based on a Mazda 6 chassis that has been lengthened over 2 inches and widened over an inch, the Fusion is Ford's first completely digital car, featuring computerized design, engineering and testing. The results, according to Ford, are improved interior and exterior panel fit, tighter tolerances, more efficient aerodynamics, and increased torsional stiffness (by 12.7 percent) without adding weight.
Visually, the Fusion appears smaller than its competitors, though the spec sheet indicates differently. It's greater in wheelbase, overall length and width than the Honda, Hyundai and Toyota.
Inspired by the 427 sedan concept car from 2003, the Fusion's styling is slick and uniform. Body panels are smooth and flush, and come across as looking expensive for the price point. Although its face recalls the somewhat staid Cadillac STS, its clear-lensed taillights are pure 20-something tuner.
Three Models/Two Engines
Three models are offered: the base S, which starts at $17,995; the SE; and the top-of-the-line SEL. Each comes standard with the same 2.3-liter, all-aluminum, DOHC four-cylinder that's used in the Mazda 6. It makes 160 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 150 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm and can be paired with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic.
If you want V6 power you have to step up to the SE model. Its optional 3.0-liter six-cylinder, which is also borrowed from the Mazda, makes 221 hp at 6,250 rpm and zings the price up to $21,275. Although still more expensive and less powerful than a 2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS V6, the Fusion SE V6 is cheaper than its Japanese competition.
The V6 SEL costs about $22,000 and features 17-inch aluminum wheels, automatic temperature control, upgraded interior trim, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant stereo and climate controls. Add all the stand-alone options and the price can climb as high as $26,000.
Perhaps the biggest foul in the Fusion's specs are its lack of a manual transmission with the V6. Despite this V6 being paired with a five-speed manual in the Mazda, it's only partnered with a six-speed automatic in the Fusion.
Nice and Roomy
Fusions come in three different interior color schemes based on trim levels, and our SEL model featured a discreetly tasteful charcoal interior with off-white top stitching and piano black accents. The large analog gauges are also a high point, clearly indicating Ford's desire to step up the quality of its interiors. Seat comfort is also good.
Most textures are nicely finished and the secondary controls are ergonomically sound, though cabin temperature was inadvertently raised on more than one occasion by an awkwardly positioned steering wheel-mounted climate control button. In keeping with the domestic theme of supersized excess, Fusions offer six cupholders for five passengers.
Head and legroom measurements are just within the competition's range, and its 15.8 cubic feet of trunk space places it ahead of the Accord but behind Camry and Sonata in the cargo room department. The Fusion's trunk opening is extra large, however, and its rear seats drop flat with the pull of a lever.
Fusing With the Road
During the several hours we spent driving the SEL-trimmed V6 Fusion on North Carolina's winding Blue Ridge Parkway, the car felt well sorted, composed and connected to the road.
Torque peaks at 205 lb-ft at 4,800 rpm, but feels evenly spread across the power band thanks to the V6's variable valve timing. Ford estimates a six-cylinder Fusion can run from zero to 60 mph in the mid-8-second range, which would make it significantly slower than the last V6 Accord we tested, which hit 60 mph in 7 seconds flat.
The six-speed automatic transmission was the weak link in our V6 Fusion's driving dynamic. Though the six-speed automatic offers well-chosen ratios that maximize the engine's torque curve, it often hunts for the correct gear during aggressive driving. Enter a turn with a slight scrub of speed, and the transmission upshifts. Heavier throttle application will eventually kick the transmission down another gear, though it takes a heavier right foot than it should.
Enthusiasts will also no doubt disdain the transmission shifter's single low gear "L" option. A traditional 3-2-1 option would offer more driver control.
Equipped with V-Rated Michelin Pilot tires and the same four-wheel independent suspension as a Mazda 6, we weren't surprised that the Fusion felt stable and handled predictably. Hard driving yielded some understeer, but torque steer is kept in check, and the Fusion was well mannered for a car of its size.
Steering feel is positive at high speeds and the four-wheel disc brakes provide strong stops, though initial pedal feel is a bit soft. Ford engineers indicated that complaints of excessive brake dust and roughness have been addressed, implying that softer pads have been incorporated into the Fusion.
Although the car we sampled had antilock brakes, the feature does not come standard on all models. Instead, it's available as part of the Safety and Security package, which includes side airbags, first- and second-row side air curtains, and an anti-theft perimeter alarm. A traction control system is also optional, but stability control, which is standard on the Hyundai Sonata, isn't available on the Fusion.
Transmission indecisiveness and lack of stability management aside, the Fusion is a solid performer that feels well equipped to battle the competition. It's aggressively priced and the top trim levels are nicely finished and appointed. Ford seems to have done its homework and finally produced a car that can compete with the finest from Japan and Korea.
At the end of the day, though, it's the public that will decide whether the 2006 Ford Fusion is good enough to save the Ford Motor Company.