Sunday, February 8, 2009

First Drive: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

By Tom Wilson

Click to see more pictures

The Fusion Hybrid sports the same sleek headlights and larger grille as other new Fusions. Discreet hybrid badges and multispoke 17-inch wheels denote the Hybrid.

When Ford redesigned and re-engineered the midsize Fusion for 2010, it wisely included its second-generation gas-electric hybrid technology into the model mix. The result is a hybrid capable enough to sweep aside the competition. Fully featured, fast, comfortable and capable of 40 mpg in stop-and-go traffic, the 2010 Fusion Hybrid redefines the hybrid, and is now the one to beat. Look out, Toyota Prius.

Trim Choices
A volume player, the single Fusion Hybrid model is a fully equipped 4-door, 5-passenger sedan. Starting with the standard Fusion’s SEL trim means that nice features such as automatic dual-zone climate control and power seats are already in place. To these Ford has added a single 110-volt power point, 6-speaker sound and reverse sensing system as standard equipment. And in a fit of eco-marketing, the seat fabric is made from 100 percent post-industrial materials. A full suite of options is available, including voice-activated navigation with an 8-inch touch screen and satellite radio.

Outside, the Hybrid is marked by the Fusion’s new cleaner, sportier styling, plus simple “road and leaf” badging and unique multispoke 17-inch aluminum wheels. The tires are P225/50VR-17 black sidewalls. Otherwise the exterior trim is cleanly upscale to blend into the cityscape, unlike overtly styled first-generation hybrids designed to attract attention to their hybrid uniqueness. The Fusion is taking hybrids mainstream.

Under the Hood
An Atkinson cycle version of the newly developed 2.5-liter twin-cam, 4-valve-per-cylinder 4-cylinder gasoline engine is the Fusion Hybrid’s prime mover. It makes 156 horsepower and is coupled to a continuously variable automatic transmission. Electric power comes from a 106 horsepower AC motor, for a combined maximum output of 191 ponies and generous torque, all driven through the front tires.

A second starter/generator motor starts the gas engine and provides braking power, which is used to recharge the 275-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack.

Because the gasoline engine is often not running — the Fusion Hybrid can reach an impressive 47 mph on battery power alone — the power steering and air conditioning are electrically powered. Furthermore, the gasoline engine and all computer controls are optimized to keep hot water on hand for the heater and defroster.

Inner Space
Inside, the 2010 Fusion Hybrid is mainly a 2010 Fusion — a good thing. There is generous room for the two front-seaters in a cabin that’s been moved nicely upscale at almost every point. A new dash, improved seat structures and upgraded materials are found throughout. The Hybrid does fix the rear seat to accommodate the battery pack and controller, so there is no pass-through capability.

Front-seaters also have plenty to engage them intellectually. An innovative LCD instrument cluster packs a library of powertrain information clearly and intuitively. Multiple menus both inform and subtly teach the finer points of hybrid driving, including a growing vine display to graphically underscore the instant and trip fuel-economy digital readouts. It sounds corny, but is actually fun.

Fully optioned, the Fusion Hybrid provides state-of-the-art electronics that come off particularly well in the quiet cockpit. Behind-the-scenes improvements such as thicker glass have reduced road and wind noise, plus the electric powertrain is nearly inaudible, bringing the sound and voice-activated systems to the fore.

On the Road
The most amazing thing about the Fusion Hybrid is the inability to sense how it is powered. Sure, the EcoGuide will happily overload you with graphical power path displays. But by the seat of your pants, the Hybrid simply glides along, seamlessly switching among electric, gasoline or combined power. Considerable effort went into everything, from computer software to crafty engine-management tricks to smooth the transitions, or so we were told. The effort was well worth it.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid (© Ford Motor Company) Click picture to enlarge

Cleanly taut styling hints at the Fusion Hybrid’s fun-to-drive personality. Plus, the subtle high-tech vibe makes the Hybrid more compelling than an appliance.

With a little experience, one can tell when the gasoline engine kicks in. It can be detected by a minor “grain” of vibration. But in city traffic, this is an occasional occurrence. More common is the slight whine from the electric motor when starting off from rest, the background whir of the air conditioning and the distant sound of nearby vehicles. At stoplights, the experience is a calming peace, which turns to disappointment when returning to conventionally powered vehicles and their ceaseless busyness.

Furthermore, the Fusion Hybrid has beans. Stomp the accelerator and the Hybrid runs harder than the energetic standard 4-cylinder models and approaches the 3.5-liter Sport’s acceleration. Such driving won’t grow many leaves on the instrument cluster, but it will answer the call of wild traffic. A lower center of gravity and better front-to-rear weight balance than pure gasoline Fusions means the Hybrid is naturally pleasing in the turns, too. Not hurting is the electric power steering, which offers more feel than the traditional hydraulic power steering, now used only in the Fusion Sport. Likewise, braking is seamless between regenerative and the standard friction brakes. A built-in “creep” in the electric power means the Hybrid acts like an automatic, so it’s necessary to hold the brakes at lights.

The Fusion Hybrid runs on 87 octane gasoline — but not too much of it, given a 39 city/37 highway EPA fuel economy rating. Kept in ideal conditions — clogged urban stop-and-go traffic — the Hybrid can just manage 700 miles per tank of gas, or one trip to the gas station per month, perhaps. Our test driving netted 40 mpg on Los Angeles surface streets, and our guess is a high-30s mpg average is very realistic for an urban Fusion Hybrid.

Right for You?
Deciding on any hybrid means being honest in how you drive it. Fusion Hybrids make sense in dense urban traffic, where their regenerative braking regains 94 percent of braking energy. Conversely, hybrids suffer from the now nearly useless weight of motors and batteries when on the open road, where a diesel makes more sense anyway.

Starting at $27,270, the Fusion Hybrid is not particularly inexpensive initially, and fully loaded it will reach into the low $30Ks. A conventional 2.5-liter 2010 Fusion SEL is similarly equipped, almost as fast and starts at $23,975. It pencils ahead of the Hybrid for about the first 40,000 miles at $2.50 per gallon, but isn’t as quiet as the Hybrid and doesn’t offer its green cachet.

Battery life is officially rated by Ford at 10 years or 150,000 miles. Unofficially, however, fleet testing shows the batteries can go 300,000 miles in daily use. Likewise, brake pads last nearly forever as the regenerative braking does almost all the work in typical driving. Given the necessary urban driving, we’d lean to the Fusion Hybrid to gain the quiet operation and enjoy this most modern of technologies.

Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson’s credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.

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