The new Ford Fusion picks up where the old one left off, feeling athletic and enthusiastic about the act of driving. It's even more true this time, and in context, the Fusion's the best family sedan for that kind of driver, bar none--not Camry, Accord, Altima, Legacy, 6, Malibu, Passat, or any others we can think of.
The Fusion is no longer offered with any V-6 engine, and it's better off for it, since the smaller-displacement engine strategy forces some weight-trimming on some models. The lightest version is up marginally to 3,333 pounds, but the heaviest all-wheel-drive model tops out at 3,681 pounds, more than a hundred pounds down on the scale.
The base engine in the Fusion S and the Fusion SE is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, with 175 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque, which it makes at a relatively high 4500 rpm. It's offered only with a six-speed automatic, and only with front-wheel drive. Ford declined to provide this model on its first drives for the media; as with the 2013 Escape, we think it could be some time before we're able to track down a base model, but we'll update this review as soon as we're able to find one. This Fusion, by the way, is rated at 22/34 mpg.
The Fusion Titanium has a much more satisfying base engine. It's an "EcoBoost," the term Ford uses to smaller-displacement engines with turbocharging and direct injection, meant to replace larger-displacement engines in its lineup. In this case, the 2.0-liter turbocharged four replaces 3.5-liter and 3.7-liter V-6s in the Fusion; it's down somewhat on power to those, at 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque reached at 3000 rpm versus as much as 265 hp in the outgoing engine--but it feels much friskier and more eager than the less rev-happy sixes ever did. It's also the most vibration-free, quietest installation of this powertrain we've yet experienced, in Ford-brand vehicles and in those from other formerly related automakers.
The Fusion Titanium is equipped only with a six-speed automatic, but in this case, a set of paddle shifters gives the driver direct control of the gears, a big improvement over outdated Ford efforts in the last Fusion. It's a quick shifter, and paddle controls enhance the sporty feel the Fusion imparts in other ways, while also reducing the need to remove a hand from the steering wheel. Ford hasn't released performance estimates, but based on the power and weight differences from the last-generation Fusion, it's likely the front-drive version can accelerate to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds. The Titanium's also the only model to offer all-wheel drive, which adds a couple hundred pounds to its curb weight. Until the EPA confirms fuel-economy numbers, we'll have to reason that the weight also damps its fuel economy by an unknown amount.
The intriguing option among powertrains is a 1.6-liter EcoBoost turbo four. About as powerful as the base engine, it makes 178 hp and its 184 lb-ft of torque are developed at a much lower 2500 rpm. A little more grunty than the "big" 2.0-liter, the 1.6-liter has the eager feel in common--it's the low torque peak, but it's also the availability of a really well-engineered six-speed manual transmission as a fun alternative to the six-speed automatic. The manual's throws get a little long on the north-side gears, but the clutch uptake is shorter than that of the Subaru BRZ we drove in the days immediately before our Fusion test drive, and the shift quality has a soothing, mechanical sweetness that's reassuringly familiar to anyone who grew up driving European cars. This version's estimated at 25/37 mpg, too--almost the best in its segment, just behind the Nissan Altima in highway ratings, but it does come with a price premium over the 2.5-liter four.
All versions have front struts and a rear multi-link suspension, and electric power steering that's not overly quick or artificially hefty. And just when you think the Fusion's embraced all the usual sport-sedan cliches, it shows otherwise. It's firm and composed, but it's not stiff for stiff's sake. There's more ride compliance here than in the Malibu, but less so than the cozy new Altima and less body roll, too. Still, the Fusion never forgets it's a family sedan first.
The same goes for the steering, which isn't perfect, but doesn't trip over itself with constant changes of force and feel. Turning off-center meets with an appropriate amount of resistance; there's not much feedback when unwinding the wheel, and the ratio could be a little quicker, but the Fusion has a more natural feel than most family sedans with electric steering, whether you're rolling on 17-inch 50-series treads on the SE, or on the 45-series 18-inchers on the Titanium. Somehow, we have to think the base 16-inch and optional 19-inch wheels at the bottom and top of the lineup will be more compromised. We'll let you know when we drive them.