- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

Anxious to make a more significant impression on the family-sedan arena than it did in the 1990s, Ford is in the midst of unleashing a barrage of sedans across its related divisions.

The undisputed passenger-car sales champ when Taurus was in its heyday, Ford yearns to recapture that glory. In that spirit, it poached and refined some engineering from its ward Mazda in the form of the Ford CD3 Architecture. A derivative of the Mazda6 platform, it serves as the basis for the Mercury Milan, Lincoln Zephyr and Ford Fusion, and will support at least six future vehicles as well. Providing for a longer, wider stance than the Mazda6, the CD3 offers the athleticism of the Mazda combined with a roomier passenger space — an excellent starting point for constructing a world-class sedan.

Fusion was Ford’s second choice in naming its all-new midsize sedan. Originally it was going to play its retro card, drawing the name from a Falcon model last made in 1962: the Futura. Unfortunately a national car parts chain was already using that name on a line of tires. Fusion wound up as the go-to nameplate.

The Fusion lineup comprises six trim levels. At the bottom of the pack is the $17,795 four-cylinder S model. A four-cylinder SE and SEL are also offered at $18,550 and $19,635 respectively. All four-cylinder versions come with a five-speed manual transmission; however, for an additional $825, it can be replaced with a five-speed automatic. Rounding out the Fusion stable are the $21,275 V-6 SE and $22,230 SEL. Both V-6 versions rely solely on a six-speed automatic transmission to direct energy to the front wheels.

In profile, you may be hard-pressed to trace Fusion’s styling to the 427 concept car that made the auto show rounds in 2003. With a more streamlined side view than the 427, the Fusion obviously benefited from a few wind tunnel sessions denied the concept. Likewise the rear ends are markedly different with the Fusion receiving more radically raked rear glass and wraparound tail lights. The front end, however, with three horizontal bands forming the grille flanked by stand-up headlamps is blatantly based on the 427. The projector-beam headlamps, in particular, reflect the 427. They are composed of squares with rounded-off corners that designers named “squircles.”

Neither of the engines is new nor unique to Fusion. Both find applications in other vehicles throughout Ford’s extended family. The four is a 2.3-liter with 16 valves producing 160 horsepower. The more muscular powerplant is a 24-valve, 3.0-liter V-6 capable of producing 210 horsepower. Obviously the V-6 is more satisfying and takes better advantage of Fusion’s nimble underpinnings. Kudos to Ford, despite knowing they will probably sell few of them, for offering the five-speed manual in at least the four-cylinder versions.

Strangely, the six-speed automatic mated to the V-6 bucks current trends by not offering a driver-shiftable mode.

Fuel economy is decent with even the V-6 managing an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. As expected, the fours do better, with the manual earning a 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway rating. The automatic actually improves on that performance by 1 mpg in each category.

The suspension is fully independent and features a short and long arm set up in front and a multilink arrangement in the rear. It handles smartly for a family sedan.

While the ride is pliant, it stays surprisingly neutral in the corners. All versions, save the SEL, ride on 16-inch wheels and rubber. The SEL gets 17-inch aluminum wheels.

Four-wheel disc brakes are standard on all Fusions. Antilock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution will set you back $595, and adding traction control to the package costs another $95.

Each trim level gets its own interior environment. Leather seating is an $895 option. Neatly arranged and handsomely styled, the instrument panel is as pleasing to look at is it simple to navigate. There is plenty of room in both the front and rear seats. Likewise the trunk is a spacious 15.8 cubic feet and features a user-friendly low liftover. A split 60/40 rear seat can be folded down to further increase cargo capacity.

All Fusions come with cruise control, a four-speaker audio system with CD player, full power accessories and keyless remote. Moving up to the SE adds two speakers, a six-way power driver’s seat, redundant steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and carbon trim accents.

Stepping up to the top-of-the-line SEL adds a six-disc CD changer, wood or black trim and automatic climate control.

Ford may have had to settle for the Fusion name, but that is one of the only compromises evident in this new sedan. Roomy, comfortable, quiet and competent, it can go toe-to-toe with anything in its segment.

It is proof positive that Ford is indeed very serious about its family-sedan program and is taking nothing for granted.

When compared to its competition, Fusion is a better car today than Taurus was when it was the best-selling passenger car in America.

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