At first blush that may seem funny, but it’s true: bringing the new 2006 Ford Fusion sedan to market was the easy part of a long journey Ford hopes to make from sedan- selling afterthought to viable challenger. And while the engineers, designers, marketers and bean counters huddled in the hallways of Dearborn, Michigan would hardly characterize years of hard labor and millions of dollars spent as easy, it is – when compared to what’s next: Convincing the American masses that Ford now has what it has lacked for nigh-on 10 years or more – a serious, import-chomping mid-sized sedan.
Now for the hard part.
Consumers who get behind the wheel and take a test drive will discover a nice-driving, comfortable and stylish sedan in the 2006 Ford Fusion. But getting enough people to take that trip requires sweaty work, discipline and restraint. For the only way this car sustains itself and carves a place in the American ideal of a good sedan is through a test of time and equity, built over years spent pricing and marketing a car as a quality vehicle families can count on. To do that means to resist the intoxicating juice of discount marketing; to push away from the temptation of driving down perceived quality by boosting sales via rental fleets. It’s quite commendable to build a good car, stand back and put it out there for everyone to poke and prod; but to convince a skeptical public that, yes sir, the maker of Trucks and SUVs can make a good car with four doors that drives like a dream and gets good gas mileage is darn near a magic trick.
So let the magic begin, and let it be potent, straight and to the heart of what Americans want, for the strange and brutal truth remains untouched: If Ford can’t sell America on the Fusion, they may as well get out of the car business. The car is that good, potentially, and the company’s reputation is that bad, sullied as it is by years of oval design cues, heavy fleet sales, two-day old bakery store giveaways and a competitive field best described as tough and relentlessly good.
Fact is that Ford is doing the only thing they can do if they want a piece of the mid-sized sedan pie: Building their own import. From the euro-centric design, to an interior full of tight gaps and vault-like silence, to solid on-road manners, the Fusion has the makings of a champ. Yes, it’s slightly underpowered, and won’t offer as much by way of standard features as some of its competition. But the power is acceptable, and it offers what most people need – except standard side curtain airbags. All in all, it’s got a chance…here’s hoping the folks at Ford treat it like a champ and not just another slack-jawed tomato can.
The best way to grab the public’s attention is by pricing a car aggressively and by offering it with a slew of standard features and smart options. To that end, Ford Fusion buyers get to choose between three trim levels, starting with the S with a four-cylinder engine, and moving up to the SE and SEL which come with either the four-cylinder or a V6.
As for pricing, Ford has done quite a job of it with the Fusion. The base entry-level 2006 Ford Fusion S model goes for an MSRP of $17,995, including a $650 destination charge. That’s slightly less than base trim competitors such as the Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, and it gets you a five-speed manual transmission, four-wheel-disc brakes behind 16-inch wheels, an AM/FM stereo with a single CD/MP3 player and four speakers (though there’s no easily accessible auxiliary jack for iPod connectivity), power door locks, power windows with driver’s door one-touch down function, and remote keyless entry. Also standard are rear 60/40 fold-down seats, air-conditioning, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. Available options on the 2006 Ford Fusion S model include a five-speed automatic transmission, a Safety and Security package (with seat-mounted side airbags, first- and second-row side curtain airbags and an anti-theft perimeter alarm), and four-wheel antilock brakes. At press time, option pricing was not available.
Fusion SE models add the availability of 16-inch aluminum wheels; a six-speaker, six-CD/MP3 stereo or an Audiophile, eight-speaker six-CD/MP3 stereo; leather seating surfaces; and a power moonroof. For buyers who want more power but don’t wish to upgrade to the top-trim SEL, the Fusion SE is offered with a 3.0-liter V6 engine hooked to a six-speed automatic transmission. Traction control is also available on V6 versions of the Fusion SE. Pricing for the SE V6 model starts at an MSRP of $21,275. Though pricing was not announced for the four-cylinder Fusion SE, expect an MSRP between the base $17,995 and the four-cylinder SEL, which is priced at $20,500.
Those opting for the top-of-the-line Fusion SEL get standard features that include fog lamps, 17-inch aluminum wheels, automatic temperature control, a six-disc CD changer/MP3 stereo with six speakers, wood or piano black interior trim, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and climate controls. Equipped with the optional five-speed automatic transmission, a Fusion SEL with a four-cylinder engine will carry an MSRP of under $20,500. Options for the SEL include the V6 engine, heated leather seats, and a Premium package that includes heated outside mirrors with puddle lamps, an automatic-dimming rear view mirror, a compass, and automatic headlamps.
Expect a hybrid version of the Ford Fusion to debut for 2008, but in the meantime your choices are limited four-banger and V6 models that produce less horsepower than many competitors, though the inclusion of Ford’s smooth six-speed automatic transmission with the V6 should even-steven things on the road.
Nuts and Bolts
Call the 2006 Fusion a Ford-in-ation of the Mazda 6, and you’d be pretty close to the truth. Based on the same platform that has spawned the notable 6, the 2006 Ford Fusion shares some of its mentor’s qualities and, unfortunately, some of its weaknesses. First, the good stuff.
The Fusion is a rigid ride, and Ford execs claim that it’s actually more than 12 percent stiffer than the Mazda 6. The difference on asphalt is that, in combination with the suspension, the Fusion absorbs virtually any kind of hole or bump you can toss at it, doing so without complaint and with nary a whisper. It also makes for improved handling character.
The Fusion is set to the ground with a rear multi-link independent suspension in back and a short- and long-arm (SLA) independent suspension up front. This setup differs from most common sedan suspension configurations, in which the rear sports a wishbone suspension and front gets the common MacPherson strut setup. The difference is largely in the type of handling and driving experience engineers and designers strive to deliver. For example, a front SLA suspension may allow for more responsive handling and a lower hood, as the components are located lower in the sub-frame of the vehicle.
According to Ford, the Fusion’s suspension design improves ride quality, noise and unwanted steering wheel feedback. That’s perhaps only partially true. On one side, the Fusion was a composed and spirited driver, but on the other hand it felt a little harsher on the road than your garden-variety Camry. Another benefit to the suspension, however, is the design. Thanks to lower components, the Fusion is able to offer a low-slung hood and more cargo room in the trunk. Ultimately, the suspension, when combined with the car’s rack-and-pinion steering, offers a firm ride with responsive steering and a good, hard connection to the road.
Under that suspension are standard 16-inch wheels or optional 17-inchers, adorned with standard P205/60R16 tires or available P225/50R17 tires. The standard brakes feature four-wheel discs with front brake ventilation. Available braking systems include four-wheel antilock (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD).
Powering the car through corners and straight-aways are two engines mated to three transmission choices. The 2.3-liter four-cylinder produces 160 horsepower at 6,250 rpm and 150 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,250 rpm, connected to either a five-speed manual or automatic tranny and able to get as much as 31 miles per gallon on the highway. An optional 3.0-liter V6 engine delivers 221 horsepower at 6,250 rpm and 205 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm, and is set up with Ford’s dynamite six-speed automatic transmission. The six-speed delivers a smooth and uneventful journey through the torque band, with fuel economy numbers (23/31 for the four-cylinder, 21/29 for the V6) that perhaps are close to a continuously variable transmission. Both engines run clean; the four-cylinder is PZEV rated, which is virtually hybrid level for low emissions, and the V6 offers a ULEV rating. For those who think that’s barely acceptable, a hybrid version of the Fusion – with propulsion based on the Ford Escape Hybrid system – will be available for the 2008 model year.
The bad news? The 2006 Ford Fusion, like the Mazda 6 before it, will probably get nailed for not having enough interior room – though one would never guess it while sitting inside. On paper, however, the Fusion is slightly narrower than the competition – Ford engineers were able to stretch the platform just 2 inches door-to-door and little more than an inch stem to stern.
Ford is betting that the 2006 Ford Fusion’s structure will provide significant safety for occupants, and result in credible side and frontal crash-test results from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Institute of Highway Safety This sentence is confusing. I get the side curtains. But are seat-mounted side airbags for front only? Are they combination torso and thorax? Or are those different systems? (IIHS). Judging from the marks gained by the Mazda 6, with which the Fusion shares its foundation, and the slew of standard and optional safety packages for its new sedan, Ford can feel pretty confident that safety will be a strong suit.
The trouble may well be in the money it costs to buy the safest possible Fusion. While speculation is useless until the lab rats crash a few concrete barriers into the side of the vehicle, at least one competitor – the 2006 Hyundai Sonata – is offering critical safety equipment such as side curtain airbags as a standard, and not optional, feature. Ford does include at no extra cost dual-deployment front airbags of the “smart” variety, meaning that they are deployed in conjunction with an onboard computer that controls inflation force based on seat location, crash severity, and whether a seat belt is use. Energy-absorbing safety belts, load-limiting retractors and pretensioners, and two LATCH child-safety-seat mounting points in the rear seat are also standard.
Optional safety features include seat-deployed side airbags for front occupants and side-curtain airbags in both rows. According to Ford, the Fusion’s side curtain airbags feature an exclusive "roll-fold" technology that keeps the airbag in the correct place – against the window – even if there is an obstruction, like a passenger’s head or arm.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the 2006 Ford Fusion is what awaits on the inside: This is a Ford that feels like an import. Okay, that’s probably because it’s kind of an import, as it is built in Hermosillo, Mexico, and comes to us thanks to the Mazda 6 architecture. That matters less than having a good seat to sit in and easy to use instrumentation, however, and the 2006 Ford Fusion delivers on all counts.
The Fusion has quality front seats, well bolstered for the daily commute, a cool instrumentation and gauge layout that’s simple and refreshing to look at, and plenty of room – especially upfront legroom. At no time during a 90-mile drive through the canyons of Los Angeles did fatigue or muscle crimp crop up. Perhaps most impressive about the Fusion, however, is what’s missing. Road noise and tire noise are notably absent, and scarcely any wind noise, rattle or vibration can be heard inside the cabin. Conversation or audio entertainment was front and center at all times, and the driver’s window sealed into its rubber moldings with a convincing thunk. It’s a sound that says silence – and that’s a word that shouts quality to American buyers.
American buyers are funny that way. We also like simplicity and style – but not ostentatious style – and we like it when the touch of things feels good to our fingertips. Again, the 2006 Ford Fusion meets our American standard for interior excellence, with soft-touch surfaces everywhere, quietly bold styling and simplicity in its layout that makes driving a pleasure.
For example, the radio and environmental controls are easy to see and easier still to use. As I began my test drive, I quickly glanced down to crank up the A/C – Los Angeles in the summer can be brutal, and on this day it was above ninety degrees. Much to my delight, my eyes immediately landed on the simple climate control adjustments. Better still, Fusion’s gauges were a model of clarity. Intersecting round displays, large and small, made it easy to see all pertinent data, and, well, it was also cool to look at, which made an immediate impression. Additional interior highlights on the test car include one-touch-down power windows for the driver, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, heated front seats with six-way power adjustments for the driver, and a six-disc in-dash CD changer that reads MP3-encoded audio discs.
Standard interior appointments for all 2006 Ford Fusion’s include a dash-top storage bin and a center console with a clamshell lid over two storage compartments, as well as front door and seatback map pockets. Buyers can choose from three interiors “environments,” depending on trim level, with color combinations based on Medium Light Stone, Camel and Charcoal Black. Instrument panel options include Grained (S models), Carbon Fiber appliqué (SE), and Wood Trim or Piano Black looks (SEL).
Just as with the interior, the 2006 Ford Fusion’s exterior styling speaks the import language – but does so with an American accent. Case in point: The taillights look importesqe and the low-to high wedge-shaped styling could be inspired from by any number of import sedans.
That’s a good thing, because Ford would love to bonk Toyota and Honda over the head a few times with the stick they’ve been schooled with for the past ten years. Design-wise, the Fusion is a curious thing, and perhaps reveals Ford’s internal angst over sedan-building.: On one hand, they would love to build the sedan they think will wow American buyers with its uniquely bold American qualities – especially when it comes to design. The practical side sees year after year of success from comparatively bland Toyota and Honda, and knows that the Great American Sedan has already been built, many times, on a reputation of quality and dependability.
Ouch. There goes that stick again. The result of such conflict, perhaps, is the Fusion, with its bold front and import-esqe rear. Inspired by the 2001 Ford 427 concept car, the Fusion sports a bold and attractive three-bar grille that is going to become the face of Ford in coming years, and adds strangely-angled trapezoidal headlights on either side. Front to rear, the sedan gets boring pretty quickly, culminating with a high and short rear decklid with just enough style to matter. Part form and function, the high decklid and compact suspension setup enable the Fusion to offer a spacious trunk with flat cargo space and a low liftover height.
Not bad, Bill. Not at all, and a good thing too – for if you want to sell 800,000 Ford Fusions, the first battle in the war for hearts and minds is when a fella sits behind the wheel. If he likes what he sees and feels, you’ll get him to crank the engine over and take it for a drive. And if he likes that, and if the price is less-than or equal-to, then you give yourself a good chance of selling more than a few copies.
The 2006 Ford Fusion fights that game so well that at times it was hard to believe that the Fusion was a Ford and not one of the many imports that have taken Dearborn’s car business away.
Under the skin, though, it is at least part import, and it drives like one too, from the moment you open the door and sit in the comfortable seats. The steering wheel has a nice, slightly soft grip that speaks of fun with corners. There’s cool instrumentation and a slick gauge layout that looks back at you with a clean and sporty wink, and a simple spread of controls that fall naturally to your fingers. You reach for the air and its there, where you expect it to be. You search for the audio controls and find them quickly. Of all the things people want their cars to deliver, the 2006 Ford Fusion does virtually all of them well, from interior quality and quiet to fuel efficiency and plain old fun.
Speaking of which, there’s enough fun in the 2006 Ford Fusion to make you feel alive, and enough comfort to keep tired commuters alive – and happy. It is an admirable accomplishment for Ford to deliver a sedan with this kind of driving character. After traveling through metro L.A. for 90 miles in a 2006 Ford Fusion SEL with V6 power and a six-speed automatic, this is a sedan that, in terms of driving fun, falls a notch or two below the Honda Accord V6 and above the soft-driving Toyota Camry.
Behind the wheel of the Fusion V6, when you step on the accelerator you get virtually instant pickup. There’s a slight hesitation before the 3.0-liter engine hauls you up freeway ramps and through green lights, but it’s a pause that’s barely enough to notice. Though a complete test on a more challenging course is needed, city driving revealed that 221 horsepower and 205 lb.-ft. of torque are plenty to deliver a zippy ride in this vehicle.
Cornering is deft; the suspension setup, though different than many offered today in the sedan category, handles bumps and road imperfections with virtually no intrusion to occupants and the rack and pinion steering gives acceptable input to the driver. The tires form a good patch of rubber on the ground and rarely squeal during hard corners, though the feeling here is that the tires will fairly howl under more aggressive testing. All in all, the 2006 Ford Fusion is a capable mid-sized sedan that strongly delivers what it should: a comfortable, quiet ride, and enough performance to keep drivers interested.
Ford Fusion is the best buy? Hard to say at this time, but after driving the SEL V6 model, it’s hard to imagine many people wanting the four-cylinder just to gain two additional miles per gallon.
the Ford Fusion more expensive than the competition? It’s actually less expensive, though that is a bit deceiving, as some competitors, such as the 2006 Hyundai Sonata, offer more in terms of standard features and a more powerful V6 engine.
Should I buy a Ford Fusion? You should put it on your list, and carefully compare it to vehicles such as the 2006 Hyundai Sonata, 2006 Chevy Impala or Malibu. The 2006 Ford Fusion is a strong performer that offers a nicely executed interior and solid performance character at a very competitive price. While the Fusion may be underpowered compared to its competitors, and may not offer as much in terms of standard features, it is what Ford needs – a quality car with which to begin the long journey back to sedan credibility.
Test Vehicle: 2006 Ford Fusion SEL, with V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission
Price Range: $17,995 - $21,275
Engine Size and Type: 2.3-liter I4 / 3.0-liter V6
Engine Horsepower: 160 at 6,250 rpm / 221 at 6,250 rpm
Engine Torque: 150 lb.-ft. at 4,250 rpm / 205 lb.-ft. at 4,800 rpm,
Transmission: Five speed manual / five speed automatic / six-speed automatic
Curb weight, lbs.: 3,101 / 3,158 / 3,280
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 23/31 / 21/29
Leg room (front/rear): 42.3 / 37.0
Head room (front/rear): 38.7 / 37.8
Max. Seating Capacity: 5
Max. Cargo Volume: 15.8 cubic ft.
Competitors: Chevrolet Cobalt, Chevrolet Impala, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima , Mazda Mazda 6, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Altima, Pontiac G6, Suzuki Verona, Volkswagen Jetta
Photos courtesy of Ford Motor Corp.