It's no secret that Detroit has had trouble breaking its addiction to SUVs. This has been true even in the market for green cars. In their push into hybrids, U.S. carmakers first focused on big, heavy models such as the Ford Escape Hybrid and the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid instead of compacts, such as Toyota's (TM) Prius, which pioneered and still dominates the market for high-mileage, gas-electric vehicles.
Detroit's first-effort hybrids have been technically impressive, and silenced any charges that the U.S. couldn't hack hybrid technologies, but it's no surprise sales have fallen short. Last year's oil price spike made one thing clear: When gas hits $4 and beyond, most buyers prefer hybrids with big mileage numbers, not just slightly more efficient versions of their old gas guzzlers.
With the rollout of the Fusion Hybrid sedan and its upmarket twin, the Mercury Milan Hybrid, Ford has a pair of world-beating hybrids that not only are ready for today's market but are also perfectly suited for when gas prices return to scary levels. Ford Motor's (F) new hybrids better the leader in this niche, Toyota's Camry Hybrid, with a no-compromise four-door sedan that delivers great mileage and impressive performance all while it whispers, rather than shouts, its hybrid street cred. Indeed, this month Consumer Reports rated the Ford Fusion Hybrid its top domestic sedan, tying with the Toyota Camry Hybrid for overall ranking.
With a mix of high mileage, mainstream styling, and standout performance, the $27,270 Fusion Hybrid and the more luxe $31,324 Milan Hybrid should have broad appeal, luring would-be buyers not shopping specifically for a hybrid. For mileage junkies, the models deliver 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. Compared with Toyota's Camry Hybrid, that's 8 mpg better in the city and 2 mpg better on the highway.
Ford has improved a lot from its first-generation hybrid system, used in the Ford Escape Hybrid. Its second version hits a new level of engineering sophistication, delivering quiet, smooth integration between electric and mechanical systems. Gone are the mysterious clunks and mushy brakes that—though improved in recent years—still haunt its direct competitors. With hybrids, unlike a rumbling V8 muscle car, the less you hear and feel of the engine's inner workings, the better engineered it is.
Behind the Wheel
Under the hood, Ford has upgraded not just the electric systems in this hybrid but the gas engine, too. The effort shows in the hybrid's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 156 horsepower. The power plant takes advantage of a timing trick known as the Atkinson cycle. This design holds open the intake valve longer during the piston's first stroke, which burns gasoline more efficiently, but at the sacrifice of power. Electric motors are a perfect complement to this green engine, providing instant, on-demand thrust when necessary. Working together, the gas-fired engine and twin-motor electric drive train offer combined 191 horsepower and respectable acceleration, 8.7 seconds to reach 60 mph.
To deliver power so smoothly, Ford explains, it has combined many small tweaks to make this hybrid drive, well, not quite like a hybrid. The tricks include variable timing on the intake cam, a continuously variable transmission, and an upgraded braking system that recaptures energy more smoothly.
Other improvements include a smaller, lighter nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Thanks to changes in the batteries' chemical recipe, they deliver more power and run cooler, obviating the need for a separate, bulky cooling system. The added juice lets the Fusion and Milan get up to 47 mph running solely on electricity. No other hybrid today can top 25 mph before switching on the gas engine. Total driving range is an impressive 700 miles.
The improved batteries still eat up useful storage space, though. The smaller size lets Ford's designers tuck the battery pack between the trunk and rear seats. Though a smart use of space, this approach takes a bite out of trunk capacity and prevents the rear seats from folding down. Some shoppers will also be disappointed that the Fusion and Milan hybrids come with front-wheel drive only.
On the outside, the Fusion and Milan hybrids get only light changes. They carry through design improvements applied to their gas-only siblings. One other key cosmetic difference, of course, is Ford's hybrid emblem, a modest road-and-leaf symbol tacked on the fenders and rear.
Inside the cockpit, the cars' green identity literally glows. What jumps out are detailed feedback systems dubbed by Ford "SmartGauge with EcoGuide." To refine this instrument cluster, Ford worked with IDEO and Smart Design, two leaders in the design of devices and interface systems. A key focus, says Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of sustainable mobility technologies, was to make the rendering of even advanced data very clear and nondistracting.
These green gizmos are sure to be a love-hate feature for many buyers. The hypermileage geek of the family will love them, and the everyday driver may feel it's all just overkill. Luckily for the latter, it's easy to toggle through four levels of feedback. Each setting lights up more gauges on the colorful dashboard to reveal even more detailed performance data:
"Inform" shows fuel level and battery charge status.
"Enlighten" also shows electric vehicle mode indicator and a tachometer.
"Engage" adds details on engine output power and battery output power.
"Empower" is an expert level that also adds information about power to the wheels, something called "engine pull-up threshold," and accessory power consumption.
The most whimsical—some might say gimmicky—element of this system is a rendering of a vine that appears in the right of the dash. If you drive efficiently, green leaves appear and multiply on this vine. Just how well the device reinforces green driving habits depends a lot on whether the driver knows just what tactics make those leaves appear, such as accelerating and braking smoothly while avoiding lurching starts and stops. For the disinterested everyday driver, the reward won't mean much. For eco-drivers who like to see their efforts continuously rewarded, the leaves and other feedback are fun.
Ford deserves kudos for the effort behind this complex suite of feedback systems. If U.S. carmakers have long lagged behind their overseas counterparts in the design and build quality of cockpit controls, Ford's design gurus have pulled ahead in the areas of software design and display. Toyota pioneered the display of mileage informatics in its Prius, some 12 years ago, with a now-classic display that shows the ebb and flow of power between engine, motor, brakes, and batteries. Ford's approach includes these basic information sets but makes them more user-friendly and adds layers of other ways to understand and access them.
Study after study has shown that altering driver habits—driving smoothly, not aggressively—is one of the biggest factors in improving overall mileage. For all the recognition Ford is due for its success in besting its hybrid rivals, it deserves extra credit for pushing so far ahead in the thinking and design of how the driver uses and experiences performance data in the car. These systems are sure to appear and evolve in both hybrid and conventional gas cars down the road.
Buy It or Bag It?
Ford couldn't have picked a tougher year in which to launch a new hybrid. The biggest problem is, of course, the cratering of auto sales overall. Then there's the fact that the price of gas has fallen back below the level that sent droves to hybrid sales lots just last year. But most of all, Ford launched its new Ford Fusion and its sibling the Mercury Milan into the most competitive market for hybrid models ever. Just a couple of years ago, there were no midsize hybrids to speak of. Today, there's Nissan's (NSANY) Altima Hybrid (at $26,650 and which uses Toyota's hybrid technology) and the Toyota Camry Hybrid (from $26,150). Three others have debuted but were discontinued: the Chevy Malibu Hybrid, Honda's (HMC) Accord Hybrid, and Saturn's Aura Hybrid.
Of course, there are higher-mileage hybrids out there, silently cruising U.S. streets. At 51 mpg in the city and 48 mpg on the highway, Toyota's recently updated Prius (from $22,000), now in its fifth generation, retains the title of the highest-mileage gas-powered car in the U.S. And with the Insight, Honda has redesigned its pioneering hybrid and priced it aggressively, from $19,800. It delivers 40 mpg in the city and 43 mpg on the highway. Yet many drivers are turned off by the telltale almond-shaped bodies of these hypermileage compacts. Then there's their not-so-powerful drive trains.
For those drivers looking for a no-compromise sedan that looks and drives like a "normal" car, Ford's Fusion and Milan hybrids stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Click here to see more of the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Mercury Milan Hybrid.