- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

Consumers only need to look at Ford’s newest midsize sedan, the Fusion, to see that family cars are looking more upscale these days, even as their price tags remain decidedly affordable.

The nicely styled, five-passenger Fusion comes to market with the fourth-lowest starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of all 2006 midsize sedans, as classified by the federal government.

Specifically, the base 2006 Fusion with 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine and manual transmission has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $17,795.

Among cars in the Environmental Protection Agency’s midsize sedan class, only the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Spectra and Kia Optima from South Korea have lower base pricing.

Indeed, the base Fusion is priced lower than popular sedans such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. All prices noted here are for four-cylinder-powered, four-door, base models with manual transmissions.

The top-selling Camry has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $19,025 for a base 2006 model, while a base 2006 Accord starts at $18,775.

The front-wheel-drive Fusion is the latest of two sedans to replace the long-lived Ford Taurus family sedan. Ford debuted its other, more expensive, new car for the family sedan market, the larger Five Hundred, in the 2005 model year.

Besides the Fusion’s attractive styling that seems to be a mix of a European rear end and a formal front with three-bar, chrome-colored grille, the Fusion impresses with its smart packaging.

The interior is cleanly designed, with controls that are understandable and well-arranged. There’s nothing odd or awkward here, and Ford officials have even included a redline on the tachometer. A couple years back, they started to delete the redline in some family cars to save money.

The test car, a top-line Fusion SEL, included optional leather-trimmed seats that looked almost British with contrasting-thread stitching. The upscale-styled front bucket seats, in particular, were comfortable, too.

This is a car that’s nearly the same overall size as the Camry and Accord on the outside, save for a slightly lower height of 4.65 feet.

This translates into a bit less front- and rear-seat headroom than the Camry and Accord offer, but hip room and shoulder room, front and rear, are about comparable. So is the rear-seat legroom.

Front-seat legroom of 42.3 inches in the Fusion tops the 41.5 inches in the Camry and is close to the 42.6 inches in the Accord.

All Fusions come with split 60/40 rear seatbacks that fold down to accommodate long items that need to extend from the trunk.

I also appreciated that the rear-seat, fold-down center armrest sat up from the seat cushion so riders don’t have to slouch to rest their arms there.

The trunk space of 15.8 cubic feet is eminently usable and ranks between the Accord’s 14 cubic feet and the 16.7 cubic feet in the Camry.

There are two engines for the Fusion.

The base, 160-horsepower, four-cylinder powerplant that produces 150 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm is available in all three trim levels — S, SE and SEL — and with a five-speed manual and five-speed automatic.

Note the four-cylinder performance is comparable to that of the Camry’s base, 2.4-liter four cylinder but is a bit less than the 166-horsepower, 2.4-liter four that generates 160 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm in the Accord.

The test Fusion had the uplevel, 3.0-liter, double-overhead-cam V-6 that produces 210 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque at 4,750 rpm. It comes only with a six-speed automatic.

With a surprisingly tidy weight of 3,280 pounds, this V-6-powered model pulled away from stoplights smoothly and with decent get up and go. There was good passing power, too, and I merged easily into traffic — all without fuss and without any noisy, muscle-bound engine tones.

Rather, the V-6 wasn’t intrusive or annoying, as competent engine sounds emanated, especially during hard acceleration.

Overall, the interior was quiet, with wind and tire noise kept to a minimum in the test car.

The Camry V-6 with comparable engine numbers weighs a minimum of 3,340 pounds, while the 240-horsepower Accord V-6 sedan has starting weight of more than 3,400 pounds.

Nevertheless, versions of the Accord and Camry sedans have higher fuel economy ratings than the Fusion.

The best fuel economy rating for the Fusion is 24 miles a gallon in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway. This is for a four-cylinder model with automatic transmission.

Built on a slightly stretched platform of the Mazda6 sedan, the Fusion handles mostly like a car that’s smaller than it is, and drivers feel confidently connected to the road.

There’s also a stability in the ride that feels more like a European car than a domestic-branded vehicle.

I just wish that the Fusion came standard with an inclusive package of safety features. As it is, buyers of every Fusion must pay an extra $595 to get curtain air bags and side-mounted, front-seat air bags. These items are standard on the 2006 Accord.

There have been no safety recalls of the new Fusion, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Both with and without the optional side air bags, the car earned four out of five stars for front-seat passenger protection in frontal crash testing. Final notes: The Fusion is the sibling vehicle of the Mercury Milan, which also debuted as a 2006 model with a starting price of $18,995.

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