Cutthroat is perhaps the most descriptive way to describe the family sedan market. In the US it is still the largest segment for passenger cars in terms of overall sales – yes, even in a recession. Produce a winner and the buyers will vote with their wallets, time and again. Roll out a turkey and well, you know the rest.
|1. Matches its Japanese competition in terms of build quality, with excellent fit and finish and pleasant interior
2. For a mainstream family car it is rather fun to drive, with good handling, acceleration and grip.
3. Comes in a choice of three different trim levels, S, SE and SEL with a choice of two different engines, 2.3 liter I-4 (168hp) and 3.0-liter V-6 (271 hp).
Since the late 1990s, the family sedan market in America has belonged to Toyota and Honda with their Camry and Accord. Prior to that, Ford dominated the segment with the Taurus. With the Fusion, launched for the 2006 model year, the Blue Oval brigade made another stab and while it hasn’t knocked Toyota off the perch, the Fusion has in many respects, changed the perception of what an American family car actually is. A brand new, second generation version is slated for arrival for 2010, but that’s a year away and for now, dealers are still selling the original, as a 2009 model. With that in mind, we thought it would be a good idea to take one out for a spin.
The Fusion, and its Mercury Milan cousin are built off a variation of the old front drive Mazda 6 architecture and utilize an all aluminum 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, or 3.0-liter Duratec V-6. Fully independent suspension is standard across the board as are four-wheel disc brakes and ABS. A choice of five-speed manual (four cylinder only), five speed automatic (four cylinder) and six-speed auto (V-6) transmissions are offered, as are front and AWD drive variants (V-6 powertrain only). New items on the list for 2009 are standard ambient interior lighting, Sirius satellite radio, optional stability control and a new Blue Suede package that offers a choice of four exterior hues, a charcoal interior with special suede blue inserts and 18-inch wheels.
When you get inside a Fusion, no matter whether it’s a base S, mid-level SE or top of the line SEL, one thing that strikes you is how well put together the car feels. The door closes with an authoritative thunk and the dash, door panels, switchgear and seats have a chunky, substantial feel to them. Ford has made huge strides in quality control over the last several years, and according to the latest round of J.D. Power Quality surveys, now equals Toyota. The controls are easy to use too, whether it be the lights, ICE, column stalks or window switches – nothing feels out of reach or awkward.
ON THE ROAD
Turn the key and the engine settles into a smooth, quiet idle. The four-cylinder engine, once underway, feels a bit thrashy at times, though appears to be more comfortable with the five-speed manual than the automatic. The stick gearbox itself is fluid enough and gives the driver a level of involvement that is sorely lacking in many vehicles today. With 168 horsepower and 156 ft-lbs of torque, the four-cylinder it isn’t going to win any stop light drag races and to be honest, for a small four-banger, fuel economy is rather marginal – 20-mpg city/29 highway with the manual or 20/28 with the auto. Unless you absolutely have to have a stick shift in your family sedan, our suggestion is to opt for the Duratec V-6, six-speed automatic combo. The V-6 is silky smooth and with 271 horsepower and 205 ft-lbs of torque has the muscle to get the Fusion moving. Under acceleration it barely breaks a sweat and the smooth shifting six-speed automatic is well matched to its powerband. And given an extra cog, fuel economy almost matches the four-cylinder – at 18-mpg city/26 highway -all the more reason to consider it over the base powertrain. Traction control, which comes standard with the V-6, provides a welcome assistance on slippery surfaces, especially when accelerating.
In terms of driving dynamics, the inherently sporting DNA of the Mazda 6 comes through. Although understeer is still inherently present (less so in the AWD models) the Fusion is taught and responsive through corners with good directional stability and nicely weighted steering. The trade off is a somewhat harsher ride than a lot of its contemporaries, like the Accord, Camry and Malibu, lending a rather European flavor to what is, after all, an American family car. Braking is a strong point, with fairly beefy 11.7-inch discs up front and 11-inch diameter rear units, that do a decent job at hauling the car down from speed, in a stable, linear fashion. A four-channel ABS system with Electronic Brake Distribution is optional and provides enhanced stopping, particularly in panic situations or through corners.
In terms of interior space the Fusion provides good front seat comfort and room, both for legs and heads, though the rear is best reserved for two adults or three children, as thee full-size grown ups will probably find it a little irksome, especially over longer distances. As far as standard equipment goes, the Fusion comes well equipped for 2009. Standard stuff includes a tilt and telescopic leather-wrapped steering wheel with built in cruise control, multi-speed wipers, power locks, windows and mirrors, automatically dimming rear view mirror, in-Car Entertainment system with CD and MP3 player, Sirius-XM satellite radio and split 60/40 folding rear seat backs.
Good build quality Willing V-6 powertrain Capable Handling
Firm ride Thrashy base engine Fuel economy could be better
Given that the entry price for a four-cylinder S is $17,284 and a V-6 SE, that comes standard with 16-inch wheels and tires and Premium sound, starts at $20,104, the 2009 Fusion, with its combination of decent build quality, good driving dynamics and a lengthy list of standard kit, currently represents a lot of family car for the money.