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The 2012 Ford Fusion marks the end of an era at Ford. After the Taurus lost the narrative in the mid-1990s, Ford's fortunes in the family-car segment faded--for a decade. The Fusion came along in 2006 and it's been a steadily growing sales success ever since, posting some of its best numbers this year even as Ford prepares a replacement for the 2013 model year.
It's easy to see why the Fusion is popular. It starts with smart styling, a little aggressive in its thick-barred grille and squat taillamps. It owes a little bit to the Ford 427 concept car from the auto-show circuit, and it went on to influence designs like that of the 2010 Ford Taurus, now a full-sizer above the Fusion in the pecking order. From the side, the Fusion's pretty traditional, almost plain, but it's wearing well with age. The cabin walks the same tightrope, with a simple design and some rich-feeling pieces woven into a cleanly laid out set of controls. Almost everything looks good, in a traditional way, and the textures look and feel swell. It may not be the extrovert like the Kia Optima or Hyundai Sonata, but the Fusion still has a spring in its styling step, six years down the road.
A choice of four engines, manual or automatic transmissions, gas or hybrid technology, and front- or all-wheel drive leaves plenty of room in the Fusion lineup for shoppers to find a good match. Base cars get a 175-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission, with an automatic option. It's rare to find these in press fleets, but as luck would have it, we've rented three of these in showroom condition in the past year, and can judge it very competitive with some other base four-cylinders. It's responsive, not sluggish in the least, and the six-speed automatic actually improves fuel economy. We'd choose it before opting for the flex-fuel-capable 3.0-liter V-6. With 240 horsepower it's better in acceleration, but it groans as it delivers it, and fuel economy is just average. The Fusion Sport's 3.5-liter, 263-hp V-6 is a much better bet: it's happier to rev, much quicker than the horsepower difference indicates, and responds briskly through its paddle-shifted automatic. Gas mileage tops out at 25 mpg highway; adding all-wheel drive to the six-cylinder cars drops mileage by a mile per gallon in most cases.
Given the budget, the Fusion Hybrid would be our default choice. It teams a 156-horsepower four-cylinder with an electric motor running at the equivalent of 40 horsepower, for a total of 196 hp. The Hybrid earns a 41/36 mpg EPA rating, has an EV-only driving mode at speeds of up to 47 mph, and has a smooth feel that's one of the best hybrid integrations this side of the Chevrolet Volt.
The Hybrid's a Fusion calling card, but so is perky handling. Its electric power steering is one of its better attributes, but so is its well-tuned ride, which doesn't have much body roll for a family sedan. It's not too stiff, even with big wheels and tires and tauter suspension on Sport models, and even with all-wheel drive, the Fusion just feels more agile than most four-doors in the segment.
By the numbers, the Fusion doesn't have the biggest interior of its kind, but it's arranged very well, to make the best use of the space. The driving position is lower than you'll find in a Hyundai Sonata, for example, but leg room and head room is still ample, and the Fusion has telescoping steering and well-contoured seats. The center console spreads into knee room a bit. The rear doors swing open wide for easy access; there's less knee and head room than in larger sedans like the Accord, and still the Fusion isn't cramped unless you try to jam in a third adult across the back row. The 16-cubic-foot trunk is big and the opening is wide, too; Hybrids store their batteries back there, so volume is down and the rear seats don't fold flat like they do on other models.
The 2012 Fusion isn't the high achiever in this class for safety, but it performs pretty well. The IIHS gives it a Top Safety Pick honor, with top scores in all tests, but its federal NCAP scores include a three-star rating for frontal impact. Curtain airbags and stability control are standard, and the Fusion offers a blind-spot monitor system, Bluetooth, and a rearview camera as options.
All models have standard climate control; power windows, locks and mirrors; a tilt/telescoping wheel; an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary audio jack; and split-folding rear seats. SEL and Hybrid models get standard leather upholstery; Bluetooth; SYNC; and 17-inch wheels. Options include HD Radio; Sony audio; a sunroof; real-time traffic information; and a navigation system.