Ford's Fusion Gets Even Better

Despite stiff competition, the new Fusion has the performance, price, and practicality to take on Toyota and Honda

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Excellent fit and finish, all-wheel drive, European road-feel

The Bad: Doesn't always live up to stiff competition

The Bottom Line: Worthy of comparison to 800-lb. gorillas from Toyota and Honda

Up Front

Ford's (F) midsize Fusion sedan faces some stiff competition. Not only does the car compete directly with the segment's 800-lb. gorillas, the Honda (HMC) Accord and Toyota (TM) Camry, but it's about to face a serious incursion from General Motors' (GM) newly redesigned 2008 Malibu, which, even in its previous, thoroughly unexciting incarnation, already outsells the Fusion.

If that weren't bad enough, the Fusion last year replaced the once-great Taurus. That sedan all but saved Ford from a crisis, similar to its current woes, in the 1980s before eventually suffering a long and unhappy decline into a mediocrity even rental fleets couldn't love (see, 2/7/07, "Should the Taurus Have Stayed Dead?").

Still, the virtues that made the Fusion a knockout upstart in the midsize segment two years ago still stand, making it worthy, at least, of being cross-shopped with the heavyweights. Too few of Ford's vehicles these days fulfill the promise of the company's "Bold Moves" marketing catchphrase. But the Fusion is one noteworthy exception.

Last year, Ford sold 142,502 Fusions, according to Automotive News. That total pales in comparison to the 163,853 Chevy Malibus, 354,441 Honda Accords, and 448,445 Toyota Camrys sold during the same period. But for a new model that was rather poorly marketed at launch—advertisements that actually say why the car is an alternative to Camry and Accord are only now hitting the airwaves—those numbers conversely have the makings of a surprisingly strong start.

A basic Fusion rolls in at $17,995, but a six-cylinder version with top-of-the-line SEL trimmings and all-wheel drive starts at $23,825, marginally undercutting pricing of Japanese competition. My test vehicle was equipped with $295 heated front seats; $595 antilock brakes; $195 satellite radio; $895 leather seating; $420 audiophile sound system; and $1,895 navigation system. Even with a $700 destination fee, the total comes in under the magic 3-0, at $28,820.

Why antilock brakes are an option and not standard is unclear, but the other options are reasonably priced. What's more, nixing a few of the goodies—enhanced audio, navigation, and satellite radio, for instance—knocks off more than $2,500, making the value for price, in my opinion, exceptionally attractive for an all-wheel-drive sedan with a V6.

Behind the Wheel

Fusion may be an uncannily apt moniker for Ford's midsize sedan. If one thing kept occurring to me throughout my time with the vehicle, it was a pleasing sense of tightness. Sharp handling, road-gripping ride, even the cabin materials and seats—all surprisingly tight for a car aimed at the very center of the car-buying public, where mild blandness can be the unhappy side effect of attempting not to offend anyone. But for the most part, the Fusion felt Euro, almost like a Volkswagen or an Audi.

The Fusion's 3-liter V6 produces 205 ft.-lb. of torque and 221 horses. That's much less power than any of the its similarly equipped competitors—the Altima and Camry both pack power plants that pump out around 270 horses. And yet, the Fusion doesn't feel sluggish or unwilling to leap to action when pushed.

In fact, handling is impressive thanks no doubt to the vehicle's all-wheel drive. The experience isn't sporty exactly, especially since the car isn't stocked with a surplus of power, but confident and, surprisingly, rather fun. Certainly, the Fusion is capable of taking more rough stuff than your neighbor's plain-Jane, two-wheel-drive midsize.

Ford's new ads, by the way, crib from the famous Pepsi challenge. Drivers toss around the Accord, Camry, and Fusion to compare the three.

They report, of course, that the Fusion is the most fun of the bunch. Though I haven't driven the three back to back on the same track, I wouldn't doubt those results.

At this price point, prevailing design wisdom seems to be: "Stand out, but not too much." The Fusion introduced Ford's new three-bar grille, which will appear on the next versions of the Focus and Five Hundred (to be renamed the Taurus). That cue still looks the sharpest nestled between the Fusion's tic-tac-toe headlamps. Styling is, for the most part, a matter of personal taste, but the Fusion presents a strong alternative to the Camry's canary beak. The Fusion's perky backside, however, is less compelling than Toyota's sculpted butt.

Fit and finish inside is, overall, very good. The center console, gear shift, and door panels lack verve, falling prey to some hard plastics that are unpleasant to the touch. Center-stack controls for the audio system feel sturdy but take an understated tack.

Inside, a few features stand out. The seats, for instance, are top-notch, both good-looking and comfortable. Seats often make a first impression and Ford seems clued into this. In the front and back, the seats look plush and well-made even at a distance. Up close, detail stitching is a nice, uncommon touch. Trunk space is also cavernous, and back-seat passengers are treated kindly.

The Fusion earned an overall rating of "good," the highest given, in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash tests. And front-seat side air bags and side-impact air curtains are standard on all models this year. All-wheel drive typically degrades fuel economy slightly, but I managed to earn 25 mpg on mixed highway and city driving.

Buy It or Bag It?

To summarize, the Fusion is an impressively strong product, meeting expectations in nearly every category and impressing on handling thanks to the all-wheel-drive option. In fact, it's probably the best sedan the company has ever offered in North America. But is it better than a Camry or Accord?

That's hard to say. Stalwarts are stalwarts for a reason. Though it may not win out in every instance, the Fusion is a solid offering worthy of being considered alongside the heavies from Honda, Nissan (NSANY), and, yes, even Toyota.

Click here to see more of the 2007 Ford Fusion.

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