The ambitious 2013 Ford Fusion comes tantalizingly close to setting a new standard for midsize sedans.
A number of nagging little flaws hold it short of that, but there's a lot to like about the elegant and advanced new Ford.
In almost any other year, the new Fusion would be a jaw-dropping achievement. Arriving within a few months of the similarly excellent 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, it's almost commonplace: another great midsize sedan in a market segment that's metamorphosed from utilitarian to delightful.
Ford builds a wide variety of Fusion models. Prices start at $21,700 for a 175-horsepower 2.5-liter base front-wheel drive engine and six-speed automatic.
The top model is a 240-horsepower all-wheel drive car that starts at $32,200 and can be optioned up to the price and equipment levels of some luxury sedans. Prices for the extremely fuel-efficient 188-horsepower hybrid start at $27,200.
I tested Fusions with the 178-horsepower 1.6-liter, hybrid and 2.0-liter drivetrains.
This review concentrates on a Fusion SE with the 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine and six-speed automatic transmission, because Ford expects that model to be the best seller. It stickered at $28,385. All prices exclude destination charges.
The differences among the drivetrains are significant, but the points I make about ride, handling, comfort and features apply to all cars I tested.
The Fusion competes with the Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat.
Like the Fusion, the Malibu, Accord and Altima are brand-new for 2013, and they're all good. Each is excellent in some ways, but none clearly rises above the others on all counts.
The carryover 200, Camry, Optima, Passat and Sonata will have their hands full competing with the newcomers.
The 2013 Fusion's strengths are its looks, features and handling.
Visually, the car is stunning inside and out, a modern and elegant design many luxury sedans should envy. I could do without the gaping Aston Martin-style grille and the rather obvious gap at the front of the hood, but the 2013 Fusion is a gorgeous car.
The interior features high-quality, soft-touch materials and big, clear gauges. All the Fusions I drove had a deliberate misalignment of trim panels on the dashboard and doors, a perplexing design decision that undermines the overall feel of precision and quality. The interior provides plenty of head and leg room. The 16.0-cubic-foot trunk accommodates large loads.
The Fusion's MyFordTouch and Sync controls suffer from a number of glitches. The hands-free phone system responded too slowly to some calls and failed to recognize some spoken commands. The touch screen is insufficiently sensitive to be a primary control in a moving vehicle.
None of those problems is a deal-breaker, but they lessen the Fusion's appeal.
An optional auto-stop system available with the 1.6-liter engine and automatic transmission saves fuel by shutting the engine off when it's idling and the car isn't moving.
It rated 24 mpg in the city, 37 on the highway and 28 combined in EPA tests. Engine restart isn't as quick and smooth as leading competitors, like the Chevrolet Malibu Eco.
The Malibu Eco, and four-cylinder versions of the Accord and Altima, all have higher combined m.p.g. ratings. The Fusion's combined EPA rating beat the 200 and Passat and matched the Camry, Optima and Sonata.
The 1.6-liter's acceleration suffered somewhat from leisurely downshifts. Engine vibration and torque steer are noticeable when accelerating. The 2.0-liter engine and optional all-wheel drive system erase torque steer and transmit power smoothly.
The Fusion hybrid's fuel economy is outstanding, an EPA-rated 47 mpg in city, highway and combined driving. The key combined rating is 7 mpg better than the Camry hybrid and 11 mpg ahead of the Optima and Sonata hybrids.
The hybrid's acceleration is good. It's very easy to drive the car short distances in all-electric mode on surface streets or highways. The hybrid's 2.0-liter engine is a bit loud under strong acceleration. The lithium-ion batteries reduce trunk space to 12.0 cubic feet.
Regardless of powertrain, the Fusion's handling is terrific. The steering is responsive and firm, and the suspension grips the road firmly through fast curves and quick maneuvers.
The suspension also absorbs bumps and rough pavement for a smooth and comfortable ride.
The 2013 Fusion's style, features and handling make it a leader among midsize sedans. It's an elegant and advanced car most owners will be delighted to drive every day.
2013 FORD FUSION SE:
-Type of vehicle: Front-wheel drive five-passenger midsize sedan
-Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged direct-injection DOHC variable timing 16-valve four-cylinder.
-Power: 178 horsepower at 5,700 rpm; 184 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm
-Transmission: Six-speed automatic
-EPA fuel economy rating: 24 mpg city/37 highway/28 combined, with optional auto-stop system. Regular fuel.
-Wheelbase: 112.2 inches
-Length: 191.7 inches
-Width: 72.9 inches
-Height: 58.1 inches
-Curb weight: 3,333 pounds
-Rating: Three out of four stars
-Reasons to buy: Looks, handling, features, comfort
-Shortcomings: Voice-recognition, throttle response, minor misalignment of interior trim panel
-Base price, base model: $21,700
-Base price, test model: $23,720
-Price as tested: $28,385
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