Ford's makeover of its Fusion midsize sedan is a gorgeous delight -- undercut by some drivetrain issues in the gasoline models.
The hybrid version, due very late this year, is, in contrast, a genteel champ that delivers strong mileage and pleasing performance.
Fusion and its corporate relatives, such as the mechanically similar Mondeo sold overseas and coming Lincoln MKZ sedan, are huge within Ford Motor. The platform eventually will spawn 10 vehicles that should account for 1.3 million global sales a year, Ford says.
The new Fusion was benchmarked upmarket against Audi and BMW models during development to help make sure the car is good enough to carry that load.
Here's the result.
Exceptional styling. Not purely innovative, drawing from Audi as well as from the Aston Martin brand that Ford used to own. But if uniqueness were a requirement for art, there'd never have been a second rock 'n' roll song.
More important is the combination of elements and their impact. To Test Drive's eye, Fusion is the best-looking current mainstream midsize sedan -- and nicer on the eyes than some supposedly artsy sports cars.
Generous rear-seat room. Fusion has a longer wheelbase than rivals, meaning more leg space in back. Long-legged folk won't grumble -- unless you try three across, because of too much center hump and too little width.
Front-seat comfort. You'll probably like the driver's seat a lot, and your main passenger will feel likewise about the shotgun position.
Quietness. With the exception of engine noise noted below, it's peaceful in a Fusion.
Reasonable fuel economy. None of the test Fusions hit the federal ratings, but none fell disappointingly short in real-world driving.
In the end, the grand gripe (and about the only serious one) is about the drivetrain.
Ford's EcoBoost four-cylinder engines are too noisy, and the 1.6-liter is especially bad. Unfortunately, it's the non-hybrid one that gets the best mileage and is likely to be the one most buyers get.
EcoBoost engines have a coarse grumble typical of engines using direct injection, a fuel-injection system that boosts power and mileage, but is inherently noisier.
All makers struggle with the noise, but many minimize it better than Fusion. The direct rival Honda Accord is an example.
Accentuating the negative, the Fusion 1.6-liter's transmission downshifts too often, revving the engine needlessly and amplifying the racket.
The 2-liter EcoBoost is more tolerable, and isn't worsened by the transmission because it has more power and doesn't need the help of a rev-boosting downshift as often.
Frank Davis, executive director of Ford's North American products, provided Ford test data showing there should be no engine sound problem. The Fusion is as quiet as many higher-price premium sedans, the data show.
For that matter, Ford's data also show that the 1.6 engine's transmission doesn't downshift unduly often.
Test Drive is convinced otherwise.
But the hybrid, coming soon, has far better manners.
If you slam the gas pedal, the gas engine that's part of the hybrid powertrain roars, but it seems less bothersome. Driving more gently, the electric motor's power keeps the gas engine from having to work as hard. A mode switch lets the car operate as a pure electric temporarily. Even without using the electric mode, the trip computer showed Test Drive was running on just battery power for nearly half the distance of short suburban jaunts.
Hybrids use start-stop ignition, so the gas engine quits running when not needed, such as at a long stop-light or on very undemanding driving, where the electric can handle all.
If the gas engine restarts at a standstill, or when going a few mph, you'll feel the dreaded hybrid shimmies. But with even a little speed, shakes vanish on restart.
The hybrid price is $27,995, a few hundred dollars more than a similar gas-engine Fusion.
Quite satisfying, too: A top-level Titanium model with 240-hp, 2-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four is a runner with steering, braking and cornering up to the task of fast fun.
The driver's bucket seat is unusually comfortable. But fancy touch-sensitive controls, on the dashboard as well as on-screen, won't be everybody's favorites. Plain knobs and switches work and feel better.
All Fusions exhibit a firm ride -- more or less so depending on model and tires -- that can turn jiggly over badly wrinkled asphalt. But the ride comfort's mainly quite good.
All versions have nicely executed dashboards and interior trim, agreeable shapes and textures. The lower-price models, of course, are plainer, perhaps too plain for some tastes. But that doesn't detract from their agreeable driving feel.
The drivetrain annoyances that Ford data say don't exist are about all that prevent Fusion's blend of sexy style, sporty feel, comfortable interior and the availability of all-wheel drive from making it not only the best midsize sedan, but one of the best cars of any kind.
(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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