- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

Ford’s modern history in midsize family cars can be summed up in a few short sentences: Ford flew. Ford flopped.

Now Ford expects to fly again with its 2006 Fusion, an all-new midsize four-door sedan aimed at the market once dominated by Ford’s own Taurus but now ceded to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

The 1986 Ford Taurus was a sensation from the start. But Ford redesigned it a decade later with an eye away from its existing customers and toward an ill-defined group of supposed new buyers. The ovoid design scheme that resulted turned off a lot of people. Sales slid, and Ford was forced to concentrate on fleet sales as a way to prop up the sales numbers. That resulted in lower profits and poor resale value. Meanwhile, Toyota and Honda — and, to a lesser extent, Nissan — moved in.

Though the average observer might be surprised to hear it, given the hundreds of thousands of Tauruses plying roads all over the country, Ford figures it has not been competitive in midsize family cars for at least the last half-dozen years.

The 2006 front-drive Fusion aims to change that, although Ford executives realize they’re not likely to win over too many loyal Accord, Camry and Altima owners.

Instead, they plan to focus on their own loyalists, “where we’ve got a foot in the garage,” in the words of one executive. They calculate that one out of every five owners of Ford F-150 pickup trucks and Explorer SUVs also owns a midsize car. Moreover, research tells them that every year 20,000 Mustang owners also buy a midsize car.

That’s a hefty chunk of potential customers — perhaps in the millions — though Ford’s initial aspiration for the Fusion is more on the order of relatively modest sales of about 130,000 a year.

Though it has a few shortcomings, the Fusion seems capable of achieving that goal.

It is based on the slick 6 sedan from Mazda of Japan, which is one of the more innovative car companies on the planet.

Ford owns 34 Percent of Mazda, and the 6 gave it a solid starting point for the new Fusion, which the designers say ended up slightly bigger and stronger.

With 100 cubic feet of passenger space and a 16-cubic-foot trunk, the Fusion lands smack in the midsize category, though it’s about 8 inches shorter than the Taurus it replaces.

It’s a five-passenger sedan, although as in most vehicles, the fifth passenger in the center-rear position gets shortchanged. But two 6-footers can sit comfortably back there.

The Fusion is offered in three trim lines — S, SE and SEL, with two engines and two transmissions.

The base S model, which has a suggested price of $17,795, comes with a 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine with a five-speed manual gearbox.

A five-speed automatic is an extra-cost option.

For those who want more power and refinement, there’s a 221-horsepower, 3.0-liter, V-6 engine linked to a new six-speed automatic transmission.

So equipped, the test car had a base price of $22,360 and, with options, a bottom-line sticker of $25,650.

Though it’s not the quickest car in the class — zero to 60 takes a bit more than eight seconds, Ford says — it’s a capable combination.

With aggressive ratios in the lower gears and more leisurely ones in the top gears, the V-6 Fusion gets a strong jump off the line, yet loafs along at highway cruising speeds.

Where the Fusion shines is in its supple suspension system and precise handling.

Though not touted as a sports sedan, it handles twisting roads and sharp turns as if it were one.

The steering is nicely weighted, with good road feel.

Meanwhile, the suspension system soaks up the rough stuff and keeps the wheels planted.

The end result is a good balance between ride and handling.

Inside, the Fusion has a classy look, with either woodgrain or piano-black trim on the instrument panel, as on the tested SEL V-, though some of the pebble-grained plastic surfaces did not match precisely.

The front seats are supportive for long distances, and a comfortable driving position is easily found, helped by a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and a six-way power driver’s seat.

A nifty innovation is a rear seatback that is split 70-30 and spring loaded so if you need extra cargo space you simply reach into the trunk and pull levers to flop the seatbacks down.

Shortcomings fall at the margins.

Neither factory-installed satellite radio nor a navigation system was available at the introduction, and the radio does not have an outlet for auxiliary IPod-style music players.

The six-speed automatic transmission lacks a manual-shift mode, which would be useful in mountain driving and impart a sporty flavor.

In addition, the outboard headrests on the back seats are mere vestigial bumps, not adjustable for height, so are useless for all but the shortest riders.

Yet, as Phil Martens, Ford’s “creation” vice president, put it, “We intend to be relentless.” That means an all-wheel-drive Fusion will be introduced in the 2007 model year, followed by a hybrid in 2008.

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