Ford's 2010 four-cylinder Fusion is fast enough and frugal enough, good-looking enough outside and tastefully revised enough inside that its overall flavour - despite an element of "leftovers" in this mid-sized dish -is much enhanced, better balanced and far more appealing.
The mid-size Fusion first appeared for 2006, a sort of "fusion cuisine" mix of some much-revised Mazda6 technology wrapped in styling and equipped in a fashion it was felt would suit a North American palate content with blander fare.
Now, with even mainstream fast-food brands offering bolder-flavoured versions of their traditional offerings for the more daring burger buyers, Ford has given its latest Fusion a zippier taste too. Albeit one that one that won't put the family value "burghers" who buy one - the four-cylinder version anyway - off at first bite.
The Sport that tops the range offers real motoring zest with its 3.5-litre, 263-hp V-6, all-wheel-drive, sport-tuned suspension and 18-inch wheels and tires. Think of the four-pot-powered Fusion SEL we're taking a look at as the white-bread model, but made with enriched ingredients.
Four-cylinder Fusions come in a quite well-equipped S form at $21,499, a better-equipped SE grade at $22,799 and in feature-enhanced SEL versions for $25,799. The test SEL was also equipped with a Moon & Tune option package: moon roof and Sony Audiophile 12-speaker audio, plus a rear spoiler and block heater. With destination charges, the final tally, less taxes, was $28,879.
While the basic structure may still be based on the original architecture, it has been so extensively revised it just about qualifies as "new." And while the suspension design and braking system remain essentially the same too, they have also been updated.
It's hard to describe, but the structure of the Fusion feels not solid so much as taut. And the spring and damper rates chosen, combined with the new electric power steering's positive feel and the linear response you get, make it much more enjoyable in pure driving terms than Ford's first Fusion. Ride comfort is fine, too.
There's also more power, with the previous 2.3-litre unit increased to 2.5 litres, horsepower increased by 15 to 175 hp at 6,000 rpm and torque increased by 16 lb-ft to a peak of 172 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm. This is vectored to the front wheels by a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions.
The SEL comes with the latter and it helps generate solid off-the-line surge and plenty of acceleration through the gears. And it kicks down to an appropriate gear to tap into optimum engine output to provide strong acceleration for passing or merging.
Its tall top gear helps put up a highway fuel economy number of 6.4 L/100 km and a city rating of 9.4. After about 500 km, much of it Highway 401 driving, the onboard readout on the test Fusion was showing an average of 8.0 L/100 km. At a highway cruise, it was showing an average of just 6.0 L/100 km.
Ford claims the base S with automatic is the most fuel-efficient mid-sizer in Canada with ratings of 8.9 city/5.8 highway (there's also a Hybrid that does even better).
Mechanically, this latest four-cylinder Fusion is a stride ahead of its predecessor, with more than enough performance to make it easy to opt for rather than the pricier and less fuel-efficient V-6.
These updated bits and pieces are wrapped in bodywork that from the windshield back has a familiar look, a revised rear deck and taillights aside, but is fronted by arched fenders, a high-rise power dome hood and a massive three-barred grille. The latter wouldn't look out of place on Ford's F-150 pickup in terms of size and sheer chrome splendour. It all seems to work though, giving the Fusion a distinctive and decidedly less frumpy look.
This is also true on the inside, where there's plenty of head/shoulder/knee room front and rear, an all-new instrument panel with an electro-luminescent green-tinted gauge display and a leather-wrapped wheel with audio and cruise controls. Door caps are in a semi-soft material and silver trims the panels for the window controls, the centre stack (flanked by even nicer metal mesh trim) and the console - with some chrome touches here and there to add a little sparkle.
Seats aren't anything special, but have long enough cushions and between them are chrome-trimmed and blue-lit cup holders. In fact, there are a lot of nice detail touches, including lighted vanity mirrors and grab handles. Headlights are average and noise levels at speed low.
The trunk holds a useful 467 litres, made even more so by the 60/40-split rear seat and fold-flat passenger seat.
Minor quibbles are the high angle of the signal/wiper stalk, the headlight switch and info display button being located a long reach away down by your left knee and the presence of a high hump behind the rear seat that's more noticeable than a real nuisance.
The SE comes with power windows and driver's seat, air conditioning and audio, and the SEL adds alloy wheels, eight-way power driver's seat, auto-dimming mirror with microphone and compass, dual-zone automatic climate control, Ford Sync voice-activated entertainment and communications, automatic headlamps, keyless entry and bright trim outside. A pretty rich mixture for the asking price.
With this latest Fusion, Ford has boosted its passenger car game, as it has with its new entry-level Fiesta, the compact Focus and the now-full size Taurus. All are worth a look.
And hey, if you buy a Fusion right now they'll throw in a set of winter tires and rims, a nice (and novel) little added inducement with winter in the offing.
2010 FORD FUSION SEL
Type: Mid-size FWD sedan
Base Price: $25,799; as tested, $28,879
Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 175 hp/ 172 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.4 city/6.4 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Toyota Camry, Honda Accord V-6, Mitsubishi Galant, Mazda6, Hyundai Sonata V-6, Buick Allure, Kia Magentis, Nissan Altima, Saturn Aura, Subaru Legacy, Chevrolet Malibu, Dodge Challenger
(out of 10; not an average)