Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ford Fusion SEL 3.0 V6

When it comes to the freshened 2010 Ford Fusion, TTAC’s got you covered like Alan Mulally’s life insurance policy. Over the past few months, no fewer than three full-length reviews have served up our impressions of the base gasoline 4-cylinder SE (with manual trans, no less), the hot-rod AWD 3.5-liter V6 Sport model, and even the much-lauded Fusion Hybrid planet-saver. Interestingly, the mid-line FWD 3.0 V6 SEL model has somehow escaped our scrutiny. Until now.

Devoid of the 3.5 Sport model’s lower body cladding and the Hybrid’s prominent “I-care-more-than-you” exterior badging, the 3.0 SEL Fusion provides an uncluttered look at the 2010 model’s across-the-board spruced-up styling. Profile-wise, not much has changed, and the attractive basic shape of the car remains thankfully intact. The front end, however, alerts us to a possible clearance sale at the fake plastic chrome warehouse. Yeah, there are loads of ’06–’09 Fusions on the road, and it was very important for Ford to highlight the new model with some clear exterior differentiation. But take it from someone who loves Eisenhower-era levels of chrome—the previous-gen Fusion took the brightwork ratio to the good-taste max—on this car it just looks excessive and inauthentic. You can sidestep this styling blunder by selecting the $900 Monochrome Appearance Package (only available in certain colors); however, in transitioning to body color, the grille gives the whole front end a much duller Camry-esque appearance.

Less controversially, the rear end’s treatment works well for a mid-cycle update and cohesively embodies a little resemblance with another member of the Ford Family of Fine cars. Unfortunately, that member is the aging, down-market Focus. Still, despite its aesthetic shortcomings, the Fusion looks better than the frumpy Camry (if not the Bimmer rip-off Accord) and is by no means ass(tek)-ugly.

When the Fusion nameplate debuted five years ago, critics were largely taken with an interior so original that it seemed to minimize the cheapness of its abundant hard plastic. The 2010 refresh offers more sound-deadening, softer-touch surfaces, and more comfortable seats. Regrettably, it loses some of the individuality of the previous car’s cabin, and the new materials are now merely on par with the competition—they never fully distract from the fact that you’re a long way from Audi-ville. Still, compared with a new Camry I recently drove, I can confidently say that the Fusion doesn’t give up anything to its main competitor in interior fit and finish and actually edges it out ergonomically with terrific primary controls, a large, well-positioned infotainment screen, and clever interior storage. But what’s up with the distracting blue instrument cluster?

Where the Camry (and other competitors) do outpace the Fusion is in the area of perceived interior space. Actually, the Fusion isn’t much smaller, but it seems like it is, especially in the back. Thankfully, the rear seats are comfortable and rear leg room feels more substantial than it looks, a welcome attribute when compared to many competitors’ uncomfortable, short-cushioned rear seats that only conjure the illusion of ample stretch-out space.

Speaking of stretch-out space, a long ribbon of open interstate seems like just the place for the 19-horsepower richer (for a total of 240)—but still fairly relaxed—3.0 Duratec V6. It seems that Ford has recently discovered a way to add more power to vehicles while masking the enjoyment inherent to such augmentations, and other than straight-line slab-cruising, it’s hard to imagine getting excited over this mill in any type of driving. Everything is more refined here than in last year’s model; even without the stabilizing benefit of AWD, torque-steer is kept at bay, and even the hardest acceleration comes off relatively drama-free. While it doesn’t rev as smoothly or as quickly as its rising-sun rivals, the 2010 Duratec 3.0 is a lot more polished than last year’s version, only showing its five-o’clock shadow at revs north of five grand.

I guess it’s hard to argue with progress, but the slightly raspier, less isolated 221-horse unit from the 2009 model I drove several months back seemed more enjoyable overall. Ford would probably say that’s what the new-for-2010 Fusion 3.5 Sport is for, but should the potential for enthusiastic driving always be an extra-cost option?

Another enthusiasm-curber is the new Fusion’s chassis, which sadly follows the Camcord’s glazed-eyeball approach to steering and suspension tuning. The electric power steering is less responsive than the previous generation’s hydraulic system, though on-center feel and tracking are still better than the Camry (if not the Accord or Mazda 6). The suspension tuning is full-bore boring: it’s not floaty or unpoised, but it is several notches less exciting than the outgoing Fusion’s slightly sporty demeanor.

Pouring the Fusion into tight corners at 50–60 MPH reveals a car that feels like it corners worse than it really does and like it’s a lot bigger than it really is. Not that this is unsettling, just unremarkable. As evidenced by the few mid-corner steering corrections I had to make and the lack of untoward body motions I noticed, the new Fusion prescribes to Swiss levels of neutrality in all but the most immoderate hustles: you don’t have to fight abominable understeer or anything like that, but you occasionally think you might. I guess it speaks fairly well of the (not completely disable-able) stability system’s calibration that, even when switched on, it has a relatively high threshold of non-interference. But confidence inspiring it wasn’t. And fun it wasn’t. Picture doing some spirited driving in a rental car and that about sums it up.

Despite the reduction in motoring mirth, the 2010 Fusion is an excellent automobile and will almost assuredly serve thousands of owners very well for many years. Ford should be praised for building an honest, reliable car that’s every bit as good (and in some ways better) than the perennial leaders in this market segment—something Dearborn hasn’t done since the Taurus’ ill-fated 1996 re-design. However, the company should be rightfully criticized for making a very good product better but less fun to drive, which was an attribute that previously set the Fusion apart in its class and does so no longer.


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