(Ford Motor Co. Photos)
It's one thing to test drive a brand-new car; it's another to drive one that is pushing 16,000 miles on the odometer.
Today's 2006 Ford Fusion test car has been around a lot of blocks and has been driven by dozens of drivers. Some operated the car with gentle hands; others were a lot tougher.
Last September, colleague Royal Ford drove the new Fusion, and wrote, ``If you are looking at a Camry or an Accord or a
Sixteen thousand miles later, the big question was: Has it been reliable? A quick peek at the service records shows it hasn't been in the shop at all, except for scheduled oil changes.
And consumers seem to be impressed. ``You can't keep the SEL model on the lot," a salesman at Walls Ford in Salisbury said of our test vehicle.
After driving it for a week, we understood why this car is so popular. The Fusion's handling remained agile and the suspension taut. Steering was on the stiff side, the better to feel the road and notice how well the suspension works.
The 3.0-liter V-6 delivered acceleration that was more than acceptable, along with 25-miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency in 400-plus miles of driving.
The big trunk accepted a weekend's worth of stuff, and the rear seat accommodated full-size adults with legroom to spare, a feature Ford achieved by building the Fusion on an expanded version of the Mazda6 chassis. That feature also makes the Fusion a reasonable alternative to the full-size Ford 500 sedan, the company's flagship model.
The base price of the Fusion SEL is $21,700 (the S and SE versions can be had for under $20,000), but you will want to add ABS ($595) and traction control ($95) for New England driving. Tack on the SEL Premium package, heated leather seats, and upgraded sound system and the price hits about $25,000.
It's surprising that the ABS and traction aren't standard, but in the 2007 version front and rear side-impact curtains are standard.
Other 2007 changes involved tweaking the engine for an extra 10 horsepower and introducing an all-wheel-drive version.
Through July, Ford had sold 84,000 Fusions. In an industry where sales numbers are flat or falling in many instances, the Fusion-Mercury Milan-Lincoln Zephyr siblings posted a combined 18 percent sales increase in July.
Inside the passenger cabin, Ford has added enough quality touches with wood trim and slick styling to give the Fusion a quality feel. And with so many of them on the road, you'll recognize one coming at you by the distinctive three-bar chrome grille.
Mrs. G noted that there's nothing extraordinary about the Fusion, either good or bad. ``But it doesn't take long to get used to having it in the driveway, either," she said. And that's a good sign. Familiarity, in our case, made for comfortable companionship. It was a test car that passed the ultimate test: Would you like to own it? Yes.
That doesn't mean there weren't some minor things we didn't like, such as a directional stalk that was too far behind the steering wheel, a gear-selector that liked to pass Go (er, drive) and find low range, and the lack of a handle or indent to lower the trunk.
But there were nice accents, too, such as an analog clock, puddle lamps under the outside (heated) mirrors, and comfortable leather seats.
These aren't great days for the auto industry, especially in Detroit. But Ford people say the Fusion-Milan-Zephyr trio has restored faith inside the company that things are done right. More important, the Fusion is doing the same in the marketplace.
Base price/as tested: $21,710/$25,055
Fuel economy: 25 miles per gallon in Globe testing
Annual fuel cost: $1,190 (at $2.289 per gallon, regular, 13,000 miles per year)
THE EARLY LINE
Drivetrain: 3.0-liter, V-6, 6-speed automatic transaxle, front-wheel drive
Seating: 5 passengers
Torque: 200 lb.-ft.
Overall length: 190.2 inches
Wheelbase: 107.4 inches
Height: 55.8 inches
Width: 72.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,280 pounds
Nice touches: A chrome-trimmed analog clock mid-center on the dash, plus a big, easy-to-find trunk-release button, also on the dash.
Annoyances: Slide the automatic transmission selector into drive and you're apt to pull it all the way into low range. And it would be nice to have a light around the ignition switch on dark nights.
Watch for: The all-wheel-drive version, coming as a 2007 model, as well as future performance versions.
SHOP IT AGAINST
HONDA ACCORD Arguably the industry standard. The V-6 is terrific, but so is the four-cylinder. Priced at $18,500 to $31,000.
CHEVROLET IMPALA The 2006 re-freshening kept the Impala in the mid-size mix, but more on the periphery than central. Priced at $20,500 to 26,500.
VW PASSAT The priciest of this lot, the Passat is a driver's car, but requires premium fuel and has reliability issues from past models to overcome. Priced at $23,000 to $34,000.