Say hybrid, and most people think of the best-selling gas-electric car in America, the Prius. With nearly one million sold in the United States, it's far and away the most popular hybrid. But with more than two dozen hybrids to choose from, it's not the only noteworthy model. Second place in the sales race is also an excellent choice.
Originally planned to be called Futura, Ford's Fusion has been leading the brand into the future. Introduced as an all-new model in 2006, the Fusion fit nicely between the compact Focus and the full-sized Five Hundred (now Taurus), winning converts from all over the market. When the vehicle was redesigned for the 2010 model year, the real excitement began.
Significantly restyled, the 2010 Fusion took top honors across the industry, including Motor Trend's Car of the Year award and being named one of Car and Driver's "Ten Best." Upgraded four- and six-cylinder engines and updates to the interior made the sedan truly competitive.
Yet it was the hybrid version that won the Fusion the North American Car of the Year award and set it ahead of the segment.
Ford engineered this hybrid system in house but found many of its technological ingredients to be closely related to those developed by Toyota. To avoid any legal problems, Ford licensed several patents from Toyota. Still, the two systems were developed independently.
The system starts with Ford's Duratec 2.5L DOHC four-cylinder engine. As with many hybrids, this version of the Duratec 2.5 uses the Atkinson Cycle (as opposed to the standard models' Otto Cycle), which changes the intake and exhaust duration to improve fuel efficiency but reduces ultimate power.
To make up for the power loss, a 275-volt permanent magnet AC motor with its nickel-metal hydride battery pack assists the gas engine for a total output of 191 net horsepower--16 horsepower more than the standard four-cylinder.
What do you give up with the hybrid? Most significant is the loss of trunk space, since the battery pack takes up about one-third of the trunk. Total capacity is limited to just 11.8 cubic feet, down 4.7 cubic feet from the non-hybrid version. There's a slight (0.5 cubic feet) loss of interior space, but it's hardly noticeable.
There's also a relocation of performance. The non-hybrid version will get off the line a bit more quickly than the hybrid, but the two get up to 60 in about the same time. Oh, and there's the penalty of a nearly $5,000 rise in price.
On the plus side, there's the fuel savings to sway you toward the Fusion Hybrid. Adding the electric motor to the powertrain, highway fuel economy is hardly affected because the system works best at low speeds and in stop-and-go traffic.
Ratings for highway fuel economy increase about 10 percent to 36 m.p.g., but the city ratings increase from 22 m.p.g. for the base four-cylinder model to 41 m.p.g. for the hybrid. In the real world, gas mileage of the hybrid varies greatly depending on how the car is driven.
Reasonably driven, the test Fusion approached 40 m.p.g. with little traffic and few red lights. But when pushed, fuel economy suffered quickly and fell to the low 30s. On a 70-mile test loop with mostly 45-60 m.p.h. travel, the Fusion Hybrid returned about 37 m.p.g.
Driving the hybrid is also slightly different than driving the standard model. As long as the plan isn't to race the car stoplight to stoplight, the average driver won't notice the electric motor under the hood.
Tooling through a parking lot at the mall, the Fusion Hybrid is happy to lope along on battery power, spewing no emissions and using no gas.
Once a little bit of power is required or the battery levels drop too far, the gas engine quietly kicks in with only the slightest hint of a transition. And because of the CVT, there aren't even gear changes to disrupt the car's forward motion.
In place of the car's normal gauges is an array of animations known collectively as the Smart Gauge. You see the typical fuel-level gauge and the fuel-economy readout.
On the left side of the speedometer are two bar graphs showing usage of battery power and/or gas engine power, with additional symbols announcing "EV" (gas engine off) travel and regenerative braking charging the batteries.
Working more like a video game is the decorative "plant" on the right side of the instrument panel, which "grows" more leaves as the car runs more economically. Bare branches instill a desire to drive better. Seeing full foliage is the reward for good driving.
The rest of the car performs like any other family car on the market. My test car was equipped with excellent heated leather seats. Ford's exclusive Sync system has made voice control simple and accessible, allowing for programming of the navigation system, sound system, and Bluetooth phone.
Entertainment in this very well-equipped model included Sirius satellite and HD radio built in, as well as USB connections for other devices.
It wasn't long ago that American cars were derided for their interior materials and quality. The Fusion goes a long way to make buyers forget all of the too-plastic-y dashboards and trim of Fords past.
Fit and finish is at or near the top of the industry here, with soft-touch materials almost anywhere the driver or passenger's hands may touch. It's a far cry from the kids' toy-like materials used just a few years ago.
That progression of Ford's quality and image has been further enhanced by the fact that it is the only domestic automobile manufacturer not to declare bankruptcy. Ford sales are up more dramatically than GM and Chrysler's based on two things: the perceived stability of the company and highly competitive products such as the Fusion.
Buyers who want to show off their "eco-friendly" buying habits will purchase a vehicle that screams "hybrid," such as the Toyota Prius or the Chevrolet Volt.
For those who like to be a little more subtle, however, the best choice on the market is the Ford Fusion Hybrid, combining excellent fuel economy and room for five adults wrapped in a top-quality pro-duct. It's the perfect fusion of today's family car and the fuel-economy needs of the near future.
Length: 190.6 inches
Width: 72.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,720 pounds
Engine: I-4, 2.5-liter DOHC, normally aspirated with electric motor
Horsepower: 191 h.p. @ 5,250 r.p.m. (combined)
Torque: 184 lb.-ft. @ 4,200 r.p.m. (combined)
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 41/36
price: $28,240 with $750
As-tested price: $34,460 with $750 destination
Also consider: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, 2011 Nissan Altima Hybrid, 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid
This one time, inside Detroit's Ren Center, Sam Fiorani nearly got pulled over for joy riding a Prius...yes, inside the Ren Center! The car traveled a grand total of 18 inches before the authorities caught up with him.