Normally, the Domestic Big Three automakers are not associated off the bat with gas-electric hybrid superiority. Asian automakers, most notably Toyota and its Lexus luxury division, have gained a foothold into this small, but image-important segment.
For those thinking "Green," the "Blue" Oval Ford Motor Co. now has a mid-size hybrid sedan that stands up to and actually eclipses others in the segment. Based on impressive early sales, comparatively attainable price and great miles per gallon ratings, the all-new 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid has the potential to become the second-best selling, gas-electric hybrid in America behind the perennial leader, the compact Toyota Prius (now in its third-generation).
The Fusion hybrid is based on the successful mid-size, four-door Fusion sedan. The gas-exclusive, first-generation Fusion debuted in the 2006 model year and gets a mid-cycle tweak in 2010. The hybrid counterpart enters the market for the first time in 2010. While the gas-version is available in four trims (S, SE, SEL and Sport), the hybrid comes only in SEL.
Fusion hybrid generates power from two sources: an electric motor given life via a nickel-metal hydride battery located behind the second-row seat, and a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine. Combined, 191 horsepower is delivered. While this number may not seem all that impressive by gas-exclusive-engine standards, fear not; ample power is onboard. Fusion's hybrid system does not have to be plugged in overnight (or at any time) to recharge; it's self sustaining.
While the gas-only Fusion has a six-speed automatic transmission, the hybrid comes with an electronically controlled, Continuously Variable Transmission (e-CVT). Fusion hybrid also captures energy normally lost through friction in braking and stores it for later use, a process known as regenerative braking . Both these technologies help boost mileage even more.
The hybrid system seamlessly switches between the two power sources to optimize fuel economy. If conditions are right, Fusion can be driven up to 47 miles per hour in electric mode for short durations (three miles or so), a higher rate of electric-only-supported speed not currently available from most other rivals. Plenty of new thinking went into this new Ford. As of now, the Fusion hybrid ranks as the most patented car in America with 119 U.S. patents and patent applications.
Fusion hybrid is one the few vehicles on the road boasting city mileage north of 40 miles per gallon. Expect 41 miles per gallon city and 36 mpg highway according to government ratings. Regular, 87-octane unleaded fuel is utilized. Gas-electric hybrids usually work most efficiently at slower speeds, city mpg ratings benefit most. These figures best the mid-size Toyota Camry hybrid by 8 mpg city and 2 mpg highway. During the week-long test drive of 460 accumulated miles, the car computer calculated 35 miles per gallon in combined driving (much of this was highway travel from Chicago to the Wisconsin Dells).
Fusion marks Ford's second-generation hybrid. The Escape compact SUV (and Mercury Mariner twin) boasted Ford's first-generation attempt. Ford Motor Company is also offering the new second-generation hybrid option on the Mercury Milan sedan, the corporate twin to the Ford Fusion. In the 2010 model year, Ford Motor Co. expects to sell about 20,000 units of the hybrid mid-size duo. Both are built in Mexico.
When sitting inside and turning the ignition key, Fusion hybrid is eerily quiet. No cranking of the gas engine is immediately evident. Depending on outside weather conditions, the gas engine may not kick in all during start up (by design). One is encouraged to keep an eye on the instrument panel to make sure the engine is alive as the instrument panel goes through its own graphic-type animation when the hybrid engine purrs to life. If standing outside the vehicle, start up is more evident as engine fans make some rumble.
When driving at low speeds, coming to a stop or idling at a traffic light, the gas engine normally shuts down and the vehicle operates in electric vehicle (EV) mode to conserve gasoline. At speeds above 45 miles per hour, the four-cylinder gas engine is constantly operational.
As with the standard Fusion, seating positions are a bit lower to the ground than those in other mid-size sedans, including the 2009 Chevy Malibu hybrid. While Chevrolet introduced a "mild" hybrid version of its retweaked Malibu sedan in 2009, a 2010 Malibu hybrid is not likely due to excess supply of 2009s. The 2009 Malibu hybrid registers 26 mpg city and 34 highway with its 'mild' hybrid technology, a less intricate (and less costly) structure than Ford's second-generation hybrid. Chevy's "mild" hybrid system adds about $3,000 to Malibu's bottom line ($25,555 for a 2009 Malibu hybrid) while the Fusion hybrid costs about $8,000 more than an entry, gas-excusive Fusion. Consumers must make a financial decision whether the cost premium of a specific hybrid technology is worth the extra cash investment. However, the higher gas prices get, the more appealing Fusion's 41 mpg city looks.
One noticeable difference between the hybrid Fusion and its gas-exclusive cousin is trunk volume. Battery pack storage behind second row seats prevents folding down of seatbacks to gain access to the trunk and also reduces cargo volume from 16.5 to 11.8 cubic feet. Both have strut-like hinges outside the cargo area, nice touch. As with all newer Ford vehicles, no fuel cap is found or needed. When fueling, the nozzle fits into a self-sealing barrier, eliminating the need (and expense) of a twist-on cap.
Fusion hybrid's interior includes brushed aluminum accents with two interior choices. Optional black leather seating with white stitching was very supportive during three straight hours behind the wheel. The SmartGauge system, built into the LCD instrument panel, provides fuel-efficiency information in an animated, yet easy-to-comprehend fashion. A pull-out coin holder is found on the dashboard's far left end. Dual inline beverage holders are behind the transmission shifter. Front doors also have a single cup holder molded in. The dashboard top also sports a shallow, covered storage bin.
The front grille includes Ford's blue oval centered in a tri-horizontal bar configuration flanked by cat's eye headlight housing. Doors include strap-like housing. The hood's center gets indented up in the center. Hybrid editions have special badging on the trunk lid and front side doors. The rear safety brake light is mounted on the trunk lid, not in the rear window.
A four-cylinder, front-drive gas-exclusive Fusion starts at $19,270. The priciest gas-exclusive Fusion, a V-6 all-wheel drive sport trim lists at $27,675. The front-drive Fusion hybrid (hybrids come exclusively with front drive) checks in at $27,270. Also part of our test ride was a $5,215 option package (in-dash navigation system, blind spot alert, moon roof and leather-trimmed heated front seats) which brought the bottom line to $33,210 including a $725 destination charge. Rear park assist comes standard in the hybrid.
As with most other gas-electrics on the road, hybrid components in Fusion are covered for 8-years or 100,000 miles. Ford also provides 24-hour roadside assistance free for five years or 60,000 miles (the same length as the inline, four-cylinder engine warranty).
Fusion excels in a seamless switch from its low-speed electric mode into gas mode. Most other hybrids tested have a low-key 'lurch' or 'thunk' when the two systems merge. Fusion gets it right. Passing power on the highway is adequate at best with the 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine providing most of the oomph for the 3,720-pound vehicle at higher speeds. The electronic CVT transmission shifted seamlessly as designed. Most folks should qualify for a $1,800 hybrid vehicle tax credit from Uncle Sam during income tax preparation time if purchasing a Fusion hybrid.
In 2008, only about 2 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S were powered by gas-electric hybrid technology. As more product comes to market and purchase prices draw down thanks to the economics of volume, expect these percentages to rise.
One caveat to remember when purchasing most gas-electric hybrids is usage. Hybrids like to be driven often and do not operate efficiently when left sitting unused for more than 30 days. Most likely, a jump start will be necessary if left sitting longer than a month. For those thinking of parking or storing a vehicle at a second home or summer retreat for more than 30 days, a gas-electric hybrid may not be the best option.
Ford's second-generation hybrid technology is light-years ahead of its first. Fusion is a fun-to-drive vehicle that happens to house state-of-the-art, high-mileage technology. It's the whole package.
Plenty of judges, juries and pundits are out and about in the Internet age; but if the Ford Fusion hybrid doesn't get at least a couple nods for 2010 'Car of the Year' from a majority of existing sheet metal pageants, the hunt for hanging chads may begin in earnest.