Exterior photos: Chris Chase. Click image to enlarge
By Chris Chase
Photos by Chris Chase and Grant Yoxon
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Auto manufacturers seem to be shy about stocking their press fleets with base model cars. Perhaps there’s a perception that the automotive media will give better reviews of cars equipped with a full load of options. But while driving a never-ending stream of cars with a heap of extra-cost goodies is great for the writers who get to drive them, it makes it difficult to say how the base model of any given car compares to its stacked cousins: will it drive as nicely with smaller wheels? Will opting for a smaller, less-powerful engine turn the car into a slug?
It was a refreshing change, then, to find out I’d be driving a rather basic version of Ford’s new Fusion mid-size sedan. Ford of Canada expects four-cylinder, automatic-transmission-equipped Fusions to account for a significant percentage of sales, particularly in lower-end SE trim. There’s a good reason for the popularity of the less-expensive models in this class. Many mid-size buyers view their cars purely as an appliance: nothing more than a way to get to work, the grocery store or a child’s sporting event. Here, cheaper is better a lot of the time, and to be successful in these parts, a car needs to be competent and comfortable – two things the Fusion certainly is.
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Size and price-wise, the Fusion slots in neatly between the compact Focus and full-size Five Hundred, and is ostensibly a replacement for the Taurus, though that car is still available for 2006. The Fusion is a little smaller than the Taurus in just about every dimension – almost 200 mm shorter in overall length, 28 mm shorter in wheelbase, 20 mm narrower and down 133 litres in interior volume – but Ford figures that buyers who need that much more space will be willing to move up to the Five Hundred anyway.
The Fusion is, however, larger than the Mazda6 it shares its basic architecture with. The Mazda is small for the class, though, so the Fusion’s added size lands it smack in the ring with the big sellers in this class: the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are key targets, as are the Hyundai Sonata, Chevy Malibu and Pontiac G6.
This Ford also shares its powertrain choices with its Mazda cousin. The 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine in my tester is the entry-level choice in both SE and SEL trim levels, and can be matched with either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. The optional engine is a 3.0-litre V6, mated to a six-speed auto; no manual is offered with the V6, though Mazda makes that combination available in its 6.
On the road, the Fusion’s close ties to the Mazda6 are evident. These cars share a very stiff body structure that, combined with the Fusion’s firm suspension, lends the Ford a high-quality feel on the road. Potholes are absorbed with a muted whump! – no squeaks or rattles, no quivers from the body and no complaints from the suspension. Handling is similarly reassuring; the Fusion driver who chooses to push the car hard on a freeway offramp will be rewarded with a balanced cornering attitude, with a touch of safe, predictable understeer at the limit.
The four-cylinder’s power specs – 160 horsepower and 156 lb.-ft. of torque – are average for the class, but with a fairly high torque peak of 4,250 rpm, it takes some high revving to find most of it. As a result, acceleration off the line is a little sluggish, but a deep stab of the throttle at highway speeds prompts a two-gear downshift that puts the engine in the middle of its power band for adequate passing power.
The transmission does its job well, but on a number of 20-below-freezing mornings, it shifted harshly until the drivetrain’s dirty bits began to warm up. While most drivers probably won’t care that the Fusion’s automatic has no manual shift feature, a larger range of gear selections would be appreciated. Ford’s “Life in Drive” ad campaign seems accurate here: that’s about all you get for forward gear choices. Shifting into “low” (the only other option) simply asks the transmission to hold the lowest gear possible – useful for steep grades and not much else. At the very least, a provision for locking out overdrive would be nice for city driving. Another minor irritation is the transmission’s tendency to hold first gear longer than necessary under light to moderate acceleration.
The base price for the Fusion SE is $22,999. My test car sported optional 16″ alloy wheels ($415), a power moonroof ($1,150) and the five-speed automatic added $1,200 to the bottom line, for a total of $25,864 before taxes and delivery. Lose the fancy wheels and motorized hole-in-the-roof and the MSRP drops to about $24,300. For comparison’s sake, a Sonata GL V6 starts at $25,000 and a Mazda6 sedan with an automatic will run you $24,895.
Drivers who like their cars simple will like the Fusion’s interior. The dash is an unfussy affair, with intuitive controls and decent materials, though the all-black colour scheme (if black-on-black can be called a scheme) was a little dour. There were a couple of ergonomic flaws too: the climate controls, while intuitive to use, are low on the dash and a reach from the driver’s seat (SEL models get redundant HVAC controls on the steering wheel), and the steering-column mounted ignition switch defies a welcome trend by other manufacturers toward a more convenient location on the dash, beside the wheel. A less-serious quibble was the very loud fan, which was audible over normal conversation, even on its lowest setting.
On the plus side, comfortable seats coddle the backside on long trips, and headroom was good for drivers of average height, even with the optional power sunroof in my tester. The rear seat offers noticeably more legroom than that of the Fusion’s Mazda6 cousin, thanks to that stretch in wheelbase.
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Comfort in the back is good, though as in most mid-size cars, three passengers are a tight fit. There’s a good-sized trunk too, but it pales in comparison with the copious cargo space available in the Sonata, for example.
If Ford was aiming for a world-beater with the Fusion, it missed the mark: Hyundai came much closer to dethroning the reining mid-size sedan champs with its latest Sonata. But with its Mazda6-derived driving dynamics and tautly drawn sheetmetal, it’s worlds better than the Taurus and far more engaging to drive than many of its competitors. No, the Fusion’s not perfect, but like my tester’s simple specs, it’s a refreshing change from the ordinary.
Technical Data: 2006 Ford Fusion SE 4-cylinder
|Options||$2,865 (5-speed automatic transmission, $1,200; power moonroof, $1,150; aluminum wheels, $415)|
|Price as tested||$27,014 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger mid-size sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||2.3-litre 4-cyl., DOHC, 16 valves, VVT|
|Horsepower||160 @ 6,250 rpm|
|Torque||156 lb.-ft. @ 4,250 rpm|
|Curb weight||1,429 kg (3,151 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2,728 mm (107.4 in.)|
|Length||4,831 mm (190.2 in.)|
|Width||1,816 mm (71.5 in.)|
|Height||1,422 mm (56.0 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||442 litres (15.6 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 9.9 L/100 km (29 mpg Imperial)|
|Hwy: 6.8 L/100 km (42 mpg Imperial)|
|Fuel type||Regular unleaded|
|Warranty||3 years/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 years/100,000 km|
|Assembly location||Hermosillo, Mexico|