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Ford hopes its all-new Fusion can emerge as a sales leader in the crowded mid-size vehicle market. (Ford)
Ford hopes its all-new Fusion can emerge as a sales leader in the crowded mid-size vehicle market. (Ford)

Brand Strategy

Ford’s new Fusion comes out swinging Add to ...

Sam Hoyt, a 21-year veteran of Ford, is the feisty marketing manager for the 2013 Fusion mid-size sedan and today she’s throwing hay makers.

The reinvented Fusion has high-tech digital instruments and plenty of them, while the rival Hyundai Sonata has old-fashioned analog readouts. Pow!

The Fusion is the most fuel-efficient mid-size sedan in America: 47 mpg city/47 mpg highway and 47 mpg combined fuel economy rating for the Fusion Hybrid (it is rated at 4.0 litres/100 km city/4.1 highway in Canada). The Toyota Camry Hybrid falls short of Ford’s new entry by 8 mpg on the highway, and four in the city, she says. Bam!

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“So you’ll get back the hybrid ‘premium’ in 3-1/2 years,” she proudly points out. Whack!

That’s in the United States, where the jump from Fusion SE to Hybrid is about $3,300, we’re told. In Canada, the walk from the Fusion SE 2.5L is $5,500 (from $24,499 to $29,999 for the Hybrid), but gas in Canada is pricier, which suggests Canadian Hybrid buyers will also recover their initial cost relatively quickly.

“We think 15, 20 per cent of [Fusion] buyers will get the Hybrid; we really do,” says Hoyt, a Texan who is quick to remind me that she’s a woman in a man’s business and proud of it. Perhaps that’s why she keeps landing body blows on the competition.

The Fusion, she points out, is Ford’s quietest mid-size sedan ever. And that Fusion Hybrid has Active Noise Cancellation, which uses the audio system to muffle powertrain noise. We have the Lane-Keeping System, adaptive cruise control, active park assist, blind spot detection, and on and on.

And, “no, we have not dumbed down this car. It’s a driver’s car,” not a lumpy, sad-sack family sedan aimed at rental car fleets, she says, deflecting my comments. Baby boomers like me have spent a lifetime expecting rental cars from Detroit’s auto makers – and not just from Ford. Hoyt is trying to disabuse me of this notion. Later, after time behind the wheel of various Fusions – hybrids and otherwise – I am.

This new Fusion is the clearest indication yet that the One Ford plan started by CEO Alan Mulally when he arrived in 2006 has truly taken root at America’s No. 2 car company. Work on this Fusion began in late 2008, just about the time the world’s financial system was imploding and just months before Ford’s crosstown rivals, General Motors and Chrysler, drove into bankruptcy, only to emerge with aid from governments in Canada and the United States.

Ford escaped Chapter 11 in the United States because months before the credit markets seized up in 2008/2009, Mulally and his team had secured $23.5-billion (U.S.) in loans to restructure Ford – which was then losing billions – and fund a product renaissance. So the Fusion is a car born of crisis and fear – fear that if this Fusion is a dud, Ford will be dead as a doornail.

Well, today Ford is pretty healthy, though its European business is in crisis, as is most of the European Union. Ford is, in fact, very profitable and has a positive cash position after paying off billions in debt. That said, Ford is no longer enjoying the so-called “bankruptcy bounce” that helped drive Detroit-favoring buyers to the Blue Oval once its rivals had taken government assistance.

More importantly, Toyota and Honda, makers of the rival Camry and Accord, have recovered from their own earthquake/tsunami/flooding crises of 2011. Both companies are now in fighting trim and both of cars are assembled in the United States. That makes the job of selling the Fusion that much more difficult. Nissan, too, has a wonderfully fuel-efficient and stylish 2013 Altima to offer, one built just outside Nashville.

Then there are the South Koreans. Hyundai and Kia are winning buyers with the mid-size Sonata and Optima, which suggests more challenges ahead for the new Fusion. I mean, most of the Sonatas and Optimas sold here are built at a plant in the U.S. South. And even Volkswagen has gotten serious about North America, and is now building Passats in the U.S. South – large Passats aimed at, shall we say, large-ish American buyers. The point is, this new Fusion faces no end of challenges and challengers.

Ford’s strategy is to – let me put this delicately – carpet bomb the competition with not just one new version of the Fusion, but many. Ford plans to sell two versions of the Fusion with EcoBoost turbocharged engines, as well as the hybrid, a plug-in-hybrid and a base model with a four-cylinder engine that starts at $22,499. Did I mention Ford will offer an all-wheel-drive Fusion, too, though most of people will go for front-wheel drive?

What you will not be able to get is a six-cylinder Fusion, nor a V-8. The most powerful version, the sportiest one, is the 2.0-litre EcoBoost with 237 horsepower. If you like to row the gears yourself, Ford has a Fusion with a 1.6-litre EcoBoost engine (179 hp) mated to a six-speed manual. Ford is also offering its Auto Start-Stop system. It automatically shuts off the engine when you come to an idle stop, thus saving fuel in stop-and-go driving. The Fusion also gets on-board nannies in the form of a readout array called SmartGauge with EcoGuide. It “coaches” you to drive with a green tint.

Of course, the look of the car is quite something, too. The car’s design – with elements borrowed from the Aston Martin luxury brand Ford once owned – has been universally praised. This might be the most elegant, balanced and well-proportioned family car on the market today. More importantly, Ford officials insist that the Fusion’s quality will be outstanding – as flawless as a car can be.

In a nutshell, the Fusion that took seed at the height of the financial crisis is, within Ford, considered a “breakthrough” vehicle. Ford sold about 260,000 Fusions last year, but is aiming for 300,000 for the next full year of sales. The Fusion is expected to garner higher prices because Ford will need to do less discounting, and make fewer low-margin fleet sales. In a nutshell, Hoyt says the Fusion is a breakthrough vehicle and it is intended to elevate the entire Ford brand.

“Can we sell 300,000 and be No. 1 [among mid-size cars]?” she asks. “That’s not our goal. Our goal is to be profitable.” But being No. 1 would be pretty sweet, she concedes.

Ford, for the record, hasn’t had No. 1 bragging rights since the old Taurus finished on top more than a decade ago.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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