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America Does It Better


Well-known hybrids like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight sacrifice a lot to achieve big fuel-sipping numbers. But mid-size sedans like the Toyota Camry Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid make fewer concessions. They combine an admirable thrift with greater interior space and more standard convenience features. Aimed squarely at family car shoppers who want better economy – but still need a roomy, mid-size car that's comfortable enough for everyday use – the 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid ushers in a new era of American fuel efficiency.

 

Smart gauges

While the conventional Fusion's interior and dash layout won't get mistaken for a luxury car, the Hybrid's equivalent is a few notches above. Only this model gets Ford's SmartGauge LCD instrument panel. The electronic dials and information display are almost as entertaining as they are functional. There are several different modes that help drivers keep tabs on the eco-friendliness (or otherwise) of their motoring habits, as well as a battery charge meter, power output and more typical readouts like a rev counter and an engine temperature gauge. The SmartGauge can even display fuel economy history.

Other than the gauge cluster, the interior is essentially the same as any other Fusion, with a few exceptions. There's a 110-volt power outlet and all seats are covered with an eco-friendly fabric made from post-industrial, 100-percent recycled materials. Up front, those earth-friendly seats are deep and comfortable, and the rear seating area has adequate passenger space. Several useful storage bins make it easy to stash items like a wallet, sunglasses and keys. Ford's voice-controlled Sync system is standard; a Sony sound system, navigation and Sirius Travel Link are available as options.

 

Badge of quiet pride

It's hard to distinguish a hybrid Fusion from a gas-only model. But there are a few exterior design tweaks that set it apart. Some automakers feel the need to plaster the word "Hybrid" all over their gas/electric vehicles, but the Fusion uses only subtle badging, with a little green leaf on the lower part of both front doors and on the trunk lid. Fusion Hybrids also get 17-inch alloy wheels that are not available on the rest of the range.

The car looks good precisely because it doesn't advertise its presence. Shoppers seeking a standalone hybrid might not like this – they won't get "credit" for their green ways from friends and neighbors. For those who want a hybrid sedan that just gets on with it, the Fusion Hybrid works perfectly.

 

One more thrill and one more dollar saved

The Fusion Hybrid is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at 41 miles per gallon in the city. Hybrids typically do better in this test, because low-speed driving allows the electric motors to take over more often and that means using less gas. With a combined city/highway EPA rating of 39 mpg, the Fusion Hybrid beats the Camry Hybrid for fuel economy, which is estimated to get 33 mpg in combined driving.The combination of gas and electric motors means the Fusion Hybrid is quick off the line, with more muscle left in reserve for passing.The Fusion Hybrid's meager thirst nearly matches that of the smaller Honda Insight. One reason for this is that the Fusion Hybrid can run in electric-only mode at speeds of up to 47 mph. It's possible to "trick" the car into running on just its batteries by lifting off the accelerator and then pushing it again lightly. This is especially easy to do on major boulevards where the speed limit is 35 or 40 mph.

However, Ford engineers haven't focused solely on great economy. The Fusion Hybrid also has excellent driving dynamics. This is largely due to the fact that the base Fusion is nimble and even somewhat fun to drive. The extra weight of hybrid components like batteries and electric motors could squash the fun out of any car, but thankfully, the Fusion Hybrid retains the nimble personality of its gas-only sibling. There's also plenty of power when required. The combination of gas and electric motors means the Fusion Hybrid is quick off the line, with more muscle left in reserve for passing.

 

Not all hybrids are created equal

There are less expensive hybrids than this Fusion (MSRP: $28,100), but that's hardly the point. Smaller cars like the Honda Insight cost less (from $19,800), but they are less car for the money. The Camry Hybrid is also cheaper ($26,400), but the Fusion Hybrid is more fun to drive and has features like carpeted mats, Bluetooth, voice control for a connected phone and iPod, plus a six-disc CD changer as standard.


One alternative to the Fusion Hybrid comes from Ford's other brand. The Lincoln MKZ is also offered in gas/electric form, but is far more expensive (from $34,225). The most obvious competitor is the Toyota Camry Hybrid, despite a tangible difference between the two. The Fusion is sharper handling and has arguably more style than the Camry. Nissan's Altima Hybrid ($26,780) is a little roomier inside, but, like the Camry Hybrid, falls far short of the Fusion's impressive 41 mpg in the city and 39 mpg combined.

 

When picking a hybrid, fuel economy is usually a primary concern. Hybrid SUVs may not do much better than 20 miles per gallon or so, but that's pretty good for a large vehicle. Mid-size hybrid sedans should have an EPA estimate in the high 30s at least. The ability to run in all-electric mode is also crucial, because that will net the most fuel savings. Because hybrids are typically more expensive than their non-hybrid counterparts, look for one with a lot of standard features. Big-ticket items like a navigation system will still be optional, but seek out nicer wheels and some upgraded electronics as part of the standard hybrid package.

It's rare to find a car that combines performance, style and great fuel economy so effectively, but that's exactly what the 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid does. It's great looking, handles better than most other hybrids, yet delivers when it comes to sipping fuel. For those who actually enjoy driving, but still want the most miles per gallon, the 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid is the best of both worlds. Never before have fun and frugality been blended so well.

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Brian Moody has been an automotive writer and presenter for more than 10 years. He has contributed to such media outlets as CNBC, Fox Business, the Today show, Speed TV, Edmunds.com and KTLA in Los Angeles. He currently covers the automotive industry and reviews new cars for the nationally syndicated Car Concerns radio show.

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