2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

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Ford Motor Company of Canada

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2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Dearborn, Michigan – We all know that a rolling stone gathers no moss; still, I was somewhat surprised to see that a rolling Ford can grow some leaves, at least virtually within its dash cluster.

More on that later, but suffice to say that it’s part of the Ford Fusion Hybrid, a 2010 model unveiled late last year at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and destined for showrooms early in 2009. I had the opportunity to take a short test-drive on city streets and highways in Ford’s first gasoline-electric sedan.

The entire Fusion line-up is overhauled for 2010, with new (and quite handsome) styling, better-quality interior materials, and most importantly, new and more fuel-efficient engines, six-speed automatic transmissions, and a Sport model with a 3.5-litre V6 under the hood. But the big news is the Fusion Hybrid, which the company says is the most fuel-efficient midsize sedan on the market. And no wonder: the Fusion Hybrid is rated at 4.6 L/100 km (61 mpg) in the city, and 5.4 L/100 km (52 mpg Imp) on the highway.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

It uses a version of the new system found in the Escape Hybrid, and is now entirely Ford’s technology (save for a battery purchased from Sanyo), with over 100 patents pending on the Fusion’s system alone. It uses a 2.5-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine with Atkinson cycle; the cycle produces better fuel efficiency, while the resulting power loss is compensated by the hybrid system’s electric motor. The nickel metal hydride (NiMH) storage battery is 23 per cent lighter than that in Ford’s original hybrid system, while providing 28 per cent more power. The system produces 155 horsepower and 136 lb-ft of torque.

As with all currently-available factory hybrids, it’s not a plug-in; instead, it uses regenerative braking to capture up to 94 per cent of energy normally lost through brake friction to recharge the battery.

The conventional Fusion starts at $21,499 and ranges up to $35,299 for the 3.5-litre all-wheel drive Sport; the Hybrid comes in a single trim line, at $31,999. There are a several items that can be added, as well: voice-activated navigation system at $2,100, a “Moons and Tunes” package of sunroof and stereo for $1,200, a “Driver’s Vision Group” of blind-spot monitor and cross-traffic warning system for $1,400, heated leather seats at $1,225, a power sunroof at $1,200, remote starter for $300, and a block heater, at an extra $80.

It’s a “full” hybrid, meaning that it can run on its battery alone, both when cruising and from a full stop, and according to the company, it can do so at speeds of up to 75 km/h. During my short drive, I was only able to get it from a stop to about 55 km/h before the gasoline engine kicked in, but pending a more thorough test, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, given that the weather was bitterly cold, and that the gauge showed that the battery pack wasn’t fully charged. As with all hybrids, the engine stops running when you come to a stop, although the lights, heater and stereo continue to operate. It also switches between gasoline and electricity during regular driving, depending on how much power is needed; it’s a seamless transition, and the system has been optimized for the maximize number of “engine off” situations for better fuel economy. I hit the throttle hard several times to judge the car’s performance, but the final tally on the trip computer showed an average fuel economy equivalent to 6.3 L/100 km (45 mpg Imp) when I did the conversion from my U.S. vehicle’s display.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

While the Fusion Hybrid doesn’t look any different from its conventional cousins on the outside, save for the badges on its trunk and fenders, the instrument cluster contains a new “SmartGauge”, with a system the company calls EcoGuide, and that’s where the aforementioned tree leaves come in. The gauge consists of two LCD screens on either side of the speedometer that can be configured through wheel-mounted buttons to four levels, depending on how much or how little information you desire.

There are four cute names for the screens – Inform, Enlighten, Engage and Empower – with each building on the last and adding more graphics. The simplest, Inform, provides only the battery and gasoline levels; other graphics include electric vehicle mode indicator, engine output, accessory power draw and tachometer, among others. The one I found most useful was the engine pull-up threshold, which indicates how close the system is to switching to either gasoline or electricity. You can’t manually go from petrol to hydro, in the sense that there’s no button to push to do so; rather, it switches automatically, depending on engine load and acceleration. By knowing how close I was to either one, I could adjust my throttle pressure and stay in electric mode longer.

The full graphic also includes a picture of vines, which “grow” leaves as the car is driven more efficiently. I eventually got it up to a full forest, but drive with a lead foot, and the leaves fall off. It’s a gimmick, but it’s fun, and you do get into a mindset where you want to grow as many leaves as you possibly can. There’s also a trip computer that records mileage and fuel used, and can be used to mark personal bests, or compete with a second driver. Ford officials said that the gauges are designed on the theory of positive reinforcement, with drivers trying harder to achieve fuel efficiency and the “rewards” offered by the various readouts; even small driving changes can achieve a three per cent improvement, while closely following the “Empower” gauges and driving carefully can return a reward of up to 15 per cent better mileage.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

The drawback to all of this, of course, is that the gauges only play a role if you look at them, and several times, I realized that I was watching my leaves rack up, instead of looking at traffic. Company representatives said they’ve made the gauge as simple as possible – which is true – and that you can turn it off, but the fact remains that, like the Prius’ centrally-mounted animated display, it’s a distraction. I hope that drivers will realize that a vehicle that’s using no gasoline because it’s sitting in a bodyshop waiting for repair is not really considered “fuel-efficient”.

Of course, a hybrid can’t be just technology; it must also function as a vehicle, and for that, Ford has done a very good job. The switch from gasoline to electric is seamless, even though it happens a great deal (the system has been optimized for the maximum number of gasoline engine shut-offs, which improves fuel economy). The redesigned Fusion has a great deal of sound-deadening, and it’s so quiet that, combined with the seamless operation, I’d be willing to bet that if a driver was placed in it with no indication of its hybrid status, it would take him a while to realize it.

Steering is responsive, with none of the vagueness that can sometimes plague hybrids, and it feels firmly planted and confident on the highway. If you’re not worrying about how many leaves are growing in your gauge, the car’s very peppy, and there’s enough power to get you around traffic on the highway.

Along with the new exterior styling – including attractive taillights that illuminate with a “honeycomb” pattern – there’s a revised interior, and it’s a considerable upgrade from the last-generation Fusion model. All plastics are now soft-touch, panel gaps look good, and the seats are supportive and, at least for the hour or so I spent in them, very comfortable.

The economic climate is going to put a kink in any number of well-laid plans, and hybrid sales have dropped like a stone in the U.S. market, due both to an overall slump in vehicle sales, and to lower gasoline prices. It’s unfortunate that Ford is releasing the Fusion Hybrid into this, but if sales aren’t as good as expected, it won’t be the fault of the vehicle. This new model is very well done. While I only had a chance to drive it for a short time, and don’t know the Canadian pricing, I will say that Ford has produced a hybrid that should have a genuine and well-earned shot at its Japanese gasoline-electric competition.

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