2013 Ford Fusion and Fusion Hybrid: First Drive

September 25, 2012

In 2011, it was the minivan segment that reinvented itself. In 2012, crossovers and SUVs witnessed big turnover and a slew of new products. Now in the 2013 model year, the family sedan is witness to at least four new models, almost every one a better vehicle than the mega-seller than preceded it.

We've already shown you the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, the 2013 Honda Accord, and the 2013 Nissan Altima. This fall, it's Ford's turn, and the 2013 Fusion and Fusion Hybrid outpoint all those sedans in at least a few ways, some immediately obvious, some only apparent after a few turns down a favorite slinky road.

Ford [NYSE:F] has plenty riding on the new Fusion. Last year, Ford sold 248,067 copies of the mid-size sedan, placing third overall in a market upended by the aftereffects of the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. While the Toyota Camry held on to a sizable sales lead despite that tragedy and a full model change, the Altima leapt into second place in sales thanks to aggressive deals at the end of the old model's life cycle. The usual second-place finisher, the Honda Accord, fell to fourth behind the Fusion, in part due to the quake and to a lack of running improvements to the car over its five-year life cycle.

The basic Fusion recipe has changed substantially for 2013, moving to a new platform and joining a family of European-bred vehicles. There's still a gas-only car and a gas-electric hybrid, but this time, they're being introduced in tandem. All are powered by some flavor of four-cylinder engine--the V-6 versions are gone, with turbocharging a strong substitute for the extra cylinders. A normally aspirated four doesn't aspire to much, but the 2.0-liter EcoBoost and intriguingly, the 1.6-liter EcoBoost, reposition the Fusion lineup as a whole into a more sporty realm, down to the six-speed manual still offered with the smaller-displacement EcoBoost turbo four. Look elsewhere--Altima, Sonata--and it's been deleted, though the compact new Malibu has brought back the manual for 2013, too. That, flat handling and relatively good electric power steering make it the driver's car in the class.

The 2.0-liter's the choice for its paddle-shifter, on-demand power and available all-wheel drive, but the real quandary comes with the 1.6-liter Fusion, which we think is good enough that some buyers may ask whether the Hybrid's worth a few thousand dollars more. The Hybrid drivetrain's its own marvel, with a downsized gas engine and uprated batteries--lithium-ion now, not nickel-metal hydride--for better energy storage in a more compact, lightweight package that also has a higher EV speed of 62 mph.

The Fusion doesn't skimp on interior space. It's somewhat taller inside than the last version, and with a better driving position and better front seats. Four six-foot adults will fit fine, and so will all their luggage, though in the Hybrid, there's about 4 cubic feet less room because of the new lithium-ion battery pack. The trunk pass-through is retained, though.

Among all its features, it could be the Fusion's styling that sets it apart, now that buyers have either gotten over or gotten their hands all over Ford's controversial MyFord Touch LCD controller. The look is taut, clean, recognizably European but with some clear echoes of other brands. If you see Aston and Hyundai up front, you're not alone, and surely Audi has looked at the A7-ish rear pillar with some mixed emotions. The cabin's so streamlined, on MyFord Touch models, it's a new paragon of clean design, but baser versions with only a standard 4.2-inch screen look a little impoverished, in comparison. Blind-spot monitors and lane-keeping assists are offered, and Bluetooth with audio streaming is standard.

With the new Fusion, Ford sees an opportunity to reach buyers who grokked to the first-generation car's brisk handling and standout Hybrid model. The new gas-powered Fusion has some of the best road manners in the class, with good electric power steering feel and a firm--it says European-influenced--ride. It's not alone in that positioning, but the gap has widened between it and the Nissan Altima, which now feels more composed and quiet than in its early, brash versions. Those two are now our top choices in the segment, along with the carryover favorites, the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima--and barring any upsets from the upcoming 2014 Mazda Mazda6.

We've driven both the standard sedan and the hybrid, and have much more in the way of driving impressions and more results from our road tests. For everything we know on this striking new sedan's performance, utility, features, styling, and more, see our full review of the 2013 Ford Fusion and the 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid.

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