If BMW offers a nearly mid-size 3-Series sedan with a manual transmission, why can't Ford offer such a transmission for more driving fun and economy in its mid-size Fusion sedan?
It might be expected that the family-oriented Fusion offers only a V-6 engine with an automatic transmission, but a four-cylinder and manual gearbox are standard.
Such an engine-transmission combo requires more driver involvement than the V-6 and automatic --and thus more driving fun for car-oriented folks. No wonder Europe's BMW offers a manual gearbox for its 3-Series "driving machine.''
The Fusion is a European-style car with good fit and finish. It's based on the sporty Mazda6 from Ford-controlled Mazda -- a Japanese automaker known for cars with a zoomy Euro feel. The crisp-looking Fusion arrived as a 2006 model. One of the first ones I tested had a V-6 and was mistaken by some for a BMW.
Major Fusion rivals include the Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima -- all heavy hitters. Also, the Hyundai Azera and Sonata and Kia Optima are becoming more serious threats to this Ford.
Fusion sales last year totaled 149,552 units, up slightly from 142,502 in 2006. Sales in January -- a slow car month -- totaled 9,183 Fusions, against 10,529 in the same year-earlier month.
All four-cylinder Fusions come with front-drive, while the V-6 versions can be had with front- or all-wheel drive.
The Fusion is offered with a potent 221-horsepower V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission, which is responsive but has no manual-shift mode. However, I recently found the more economical, sophisticated 160-horsepower four-cylinder with a five-speed manual gearbox to be a surprisingly good combo.
The Mazda-sourced four-cylinder has dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, instead of the usual two, for more efficiency. The manual gearbox shifts crisply, although it works with a long-throw clutch.
Besides providing more driving kicks, the manual helps the Fusion deliver an estimated 29 mpg on highways and 20 in the city. You also can get the engine with a five-speed automatic, which provides 20 city and 28 highway, but where's the fun in that?
The V-6 with the automatic is rated at an estimated 18 mpg city and 26 on highways with front-drive and 17 and 25 with the extra-cost all-wheel drive. Both engines require only regular-grade fuel.
My test $19,785 four-cylinder manual-transmission Fusion SEL model had what every four-cylinder/manual Fusion should have: an $895 Sport Appearance Package available for the mid-range SE and top-line SEL trim levels. It contains a sport suspension, 18-inch (up from 17-inch) aluminum wheels, rear spoiler and unique exterior trim.
That package also makes the interior look especially good, with a brushed aluminum radio surround and red interior accents that looked sharp with my test car's black upholstery.
The Fusion with the manual transmission calls for more driver involvement because, for instance, a downshift from fifth gear to third gear is needed for the quickest merges into fast traffic and the best 65-75 mph passing on highways.
However, the four-cylinder has sufficient torque to accelerate smoothly from in-town speeds in fourth gear to highway cruising speeds with little or no upshifting. Fifth gear is basically a fuel-saving overdrive gear.
The power steering is fast, with a somewhat heavy feel that gives the Fusion a more secure feel on highways. The ride is supple, even with the Sport package's sport suspension and larger tires, partly because Fusions have a European-style all-independent suspension. Handling is crisp, and the brake pedal has a good feel when working the all-disc brakes.
The last I looked, Fusion list prices go from $17,770 to $24,000. Trim levels are base S, SE and SEL.
Even the S is well-equipped, with such items as air conditioning, tilt/telescopic wheel, cruise control, split/folding rear seat, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, intermittent wipers and power windows, mirrors and locks with remote keyless entry.
The SE adds a power driver's seat, fold-flat front passenger seat and in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3 changer, with the all-wheel-drive model adding traction control. The SEL adds automatic climate control, leather-wrapped wheel, heated power mirrors and wider tires on 17-inch (up from 16-inch) wheels.
Safety items for all include anti-lock brakes and front- and curtain-side air bags. The Fusion has scored well in safety testing.
Major options are a $795 power sunroof, $895 leather upholstery for the SE/SEL, $95 traction control and new $295 rear-obstacle detection system for the SE/SEL and $295 heated front seats that require leather upholstery and an $1,895 navigation system for the SEL.
The quiet interior has good space for four to five tall adults, and all doors open wide for easy entry and exit. Large front seats provide decent side support and are set fairly high to provide better visibility. Gauges have a custom appearance and can be read quickly.
However, windshield wiper controls should be easier to use, and the same goes for the small, flush audio and climate control buttons. An oversized rearview mirror can block visibility of overhead stoplights.
Driver power window controls and the dual front console cupholders are easily reached, and there's a deep covered console bin. Front doors have storage pockets and beverage holders, and rear windows lower nearly all the way.
The large trunk has a low, wide opening, and its lid raises smoothly on hydraulic struts. Rear seatbacks flip forward to significantly add cargo space. But the hood is heavy and must be held open with a prop rod, although fluid filler areas are easily reached.
The Fusion V-6 is the swiftest model, but the four-cylinder Fusion with the manual transmission can provide family utility and more driving fun, especially with the Sport Appearance Package. Why should BMW drivers have all the fun?
2008 FORD FUSION
LIKES: Surprisingly good with thrifty four-cylinder and manual transmission. Roomy. European feel. Nice ride and handling. Fast with V-6. Available all-wheel drive.
DISLIKES: Small controls. Long clutch throw. Only a prop rod for heavy hood.