Can Ford's new Fusion sedan do what the Taurus initially did? Without becoming what the Taurus ultimately became?
Between 1986 and 1995 it was hard to imagine Ford without the Taurus. That car came onto the market and was an instant sensation; its jellybean shape and commonsensical engineering effectively rewired the brains of Americans as to what they expected from a domestic sedan. It was the best-selling car in America for five straight years - 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1996.
And then Ford blew it. Big time.
The redesigned 1996 Taurus has to rank as one of the worst makeovers in the history of the automotive industry. It was flaccid, ovoid and goofy where the original Taurus had been taut, straightforward, and sober. By the time the 21st century came around, the Taurus had gone from market leader to automotive shorthand for generic, uninteresting, and institutional. It kept selling to fleets, even as retail sales dribbled down to the negligible.
Ford is slyly avoiding the reality of the situation in its press releases and talking points, but the Fusion is taking the Taurus' place in the company's sedan lineup between the larger and archaic Crown Victoria, the larger and somber Five Hundred, and the smaller and familiar Focus. It's the car with which the company will take on Camry, Accord, Altima, and all those other perfectly engineered, front-drive mid-size appliances. If Ford is going to be a force in the retail sedan business again, the Fusion has to be a hit.
Fortunately for Ford, the Fusion has the potential to be just that. A big hit.
Marshalling of resources
Does it matter that much of the stuff that makes up the Fusion was originally designed for the Mazda6? Probably not, and Ford isn't trying to hide that fact.
Ford calls the unibody base upon which the Fusion is erected its "CD3 architecture" and its expanded riff on the Mazda6. At 190.2 inches long, the Fusion is 3.4 inches longer than that Mazda and its 107.4-inch wheelbase is 2.1 inches longer. But the most significant dimensional difference is width, where the 72.2-inch-wide Fusion spans 2.1 inches broader than the Mazda. The structure is Ford's first to be completely conceived on a computer, and the company claims it's significantly stiffer than the Mazda original.
Compared to rest of its direct competition, the Fusion is almost exactly their size. Honda's Accord, for instance, is 189.5 inches long, 71.5 inches wide, and rides on a 107.9-inch wheelbase. In practical terms, these differences are meaningless. The Fusion is, however, smaller than the outgoing Taurus sedan that stretches out 197.6 inches long and 73.0 inches wide and rides on a 108.5-inch wheelbase.
Chassis and engines
The rest of the chassis designs come over pretty much intact from Mazda. That includes a short/long arm front suspension, a multi-link independent rear suspension, and rack-and-pinion steering. There's nothing startling in all this - and nothing wrong either.
Ford is shipping the Fusion out with two different "Duratec" engines and both are shared with the Mazda. The base four is an all-aluminum 2.3-liter, DOHC four making 160 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 150 pound-feet of peak torque at 4000 rpm. The optional V-6 displaces 3.0 liters, has DOHC heads, a total of 24-valves, and makes 221 horsepower at 6250 rpm and 205 lb-ft of peak torque at 4800 rpm.
While these two engines are shared with Mazda, they're actually both built in North America. The four comes from Ford's engine plant in Chihuahua, Mexico, and the six comes from that venerable institution, Cleveland Engine Plant ##2 in Ohio.
The Fusion also shares its six-speed automatic transmission -- a required companion to the V-6 -- with the Mazda6. Amazingly compact, this transmission looks like it ought to be hanging off the side of Harley-Davidson instead of transmitting power in a 3280-pound sedan. Unfortunately Ford doesn't provide any way for the driver to positively control the selection of ratios manually - the conventional transmission control only shows a single "L" indent below "D" which apparently keeps the transmission from heading into the overdrive fifth and sixth gears and not much else.
Four-cylinder Fusions will come with either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. Ford didn't have any four-cylinder Fusions on hand for sampling.
Too sexy for its brand
Ford is selling in three different trim levels. At the base is S starting at $17,995, the SE will likely be the popular model while the SEL caps the line by loading on all sorts of luxuries including 17-inch wheels and automatic climate control. All three come with the four standard, with the six available in SE and SEL.
All three are great-looking cars. Taking styling themes established by Ford's 427 concept car during the 2003 auto show season, the lines are handsome from every angle, but particularly so from the front where the three bold chrome slats make up the grille and the headlights manage the neat trick of being both somewhat rectangular and swooping up into each front fender. If there's one problem with so many cars in this class it's that they're boring looking. The Fusion, in contrast, is simply delightful looking.
And that continues inside where the cabin is trimmed with a lot of soft-feel plastic and a lot of airbags.
The dash is well balanced with a hooded binnacle in front of the driver covering four round gauges (the speedo and tach are big, the temp and fuel meters no-so-big) trimmed in fake brushed aluminum. The center stack includes all the audio and ventilation controls laid out with intuitive operation in mind, and there's a neat round clock that adds some sense of elegance to the environment. The four-spoke steering wheel packs some redundant ventilation and audio controls for ease of operation.
Yes, the seats are nice. But what's better is that there's enough room to enjoy them. In stark contrast to Ford's old Contour, the big seat has enough like room so that a six-footer can sit behind a six-footer with enough comfort for a lunch run. If the driver is five-eight, that six-footer might even be comfy for a couple of hours back there. And of course - this is a car designed for American tastes - there are plenty of cupholders.
Every Fusion comes with standard (and required) dual-stage airbags for the front seat occupants. Optional are seat-mounted side airbags for the front passengers and side curtain airbags for both the front and rear passengers. In this tough market segment, Ford may have scored some points by making all those bags standard (as Hyundai has with the six standard airbags in the new Sonata). But price is a critical element to selling in this segment too.
Drives like a Mazda
The Mazda6 is among the very best driving cars in its class and most of those manners transfer over to the Fusion. Riding on Michelin P225/50VR17 radials, the SEL's chassis responds to steering inputs quickly, the four-wheel disc brakes work with composure (though ABS should be standard instead of an option), the suspension rides comfortably over inconsistent roads, and the whole thing remains quiet under virtually all circumstances. The steering may not have quite the quality of the Subaru Legacy's, and the whole assembly doesn't work with the stunning precision of the Honda Accord, but it's fully competitive with everything else.
The V-6 works unobtrusively and with some enthusiasm. But for drivers who want more power, there's always the Altima's snorting 3.5-liter VQ-series V-6. And for anyone wanting dead-nuts silence, should go for the Toyota Camry's 3.3-liter V-6. Still this is a good engine for most people most of the time.
Having said that, the driver needs some positive control over the six-speed automatic transmission to make this car truly fun-to-drive. There are moments when the tranny is hunting for a gear when it should be confidently downshifting for a corner or upshifting at the torque peak. For everyday driving, this transmission is dang-near perfect, but there are days that are extraordinary and this transmission doesn't offer much with which to play.
What the 2006 Fusion boils down to is this: It's not going to be the quickest, best handling, most luxurious, or highest value player in its market segment. But it's completely competitive on all those counts and it's easily more stylish than its direct competition. Combine that with people who want to buy American (that Hermosillo, Mexico, assembly plant is still in America, right?) and Ford's vast network of dealers and this car is bound to be a hit.
Two decades after the Taurus debut, Ford deserves a hit. And if they're careful, this one could last longer.
2006 Ford Fusion SEL V-6
Base price: $21,995
Engines: 3.0-liter V-6, 221 hp
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 190.2 x 72.2 x 57.2 in
Wheelbase: 107.4 in
Curb weight: 3280 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A
Safety equipment: Four-wheel disc brakes; front airbags; anti-lock brakes, side and curtain airbags optional
Major standard equipment: A/C; AM/FM/CD; power windows; cruise control; tilt and telescoping steering wheel
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles