I like to ride my bike and take public transportation when I can. But I still rely on the car to move me around a few days every week. That said, developments in cars and personal transportation are things I take both personal and professional interest in.
So after Ford loaned a new 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid to me and Gas 2.0 editor Nick Chambers for an extended test drive — that we would take on a trip to and from a multi-day music festival in Southern California we were both covering — I decided to share my thoughts about why Ford’s first foray into the hybrid sedan market is making a big splash: Partly because of good business timing; but also because they built a great car.
It’s no big secret that the American auto industry has been in a bit of a funk in recent years. While gas prices were still on the rise, the industry continued to make bigger and bigger vehicles claiming the market was demanding it. The market may have been demanding it, but demand was only as stable as the price of gasoline, and as we saw in 2007 and 2008, the price of gas is not always stable.
Unlike General Motors, which had to turn to the United States Government for money to keep it afloat, Ford kept its head above water. While GM was building cars and trucks with “Flex Fuel” engines, making slow progress on the Chevy Volt and closing dealerships across the U.S., Ford was tightening its focus and forging a new strategy for the company: One that still made Flex Fuel vehicles to run on cheap American ethanol, but also one that looked to smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles, including hybrids.
In short, Americans suddenly began demanding more efficient vehicles and Ford was in a better position to deliver.
Evidence of the transition from SUVs to smaller, more efficient vehicles can be found by looking at the makes of the cars traded-in during the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ program. Six of the top ten cars traded in were big Ford SUVs, trucks and minivans (Explorer, F-150, Windstar). While many of those taking advantage of the program went on to buy Toyotas and Hondas, the Ford Focus was the third most popular vehicle purchased after the trade-in and the mid-size SUV, Ford Escape, was eigth. Absent from the list was a competitor to the Toyota Prius, but Ford hopes to change off that with the Fusion Hybrid.
Thanks to robust growth figures, the Fusion is now leading the charge of Ford’s boost in sales in the Fall of 2009. The company last week reported $1 billion in net profits for the 3rd quarter of 2009, an increase of almost $4 billion dollars over last year’s numbers. While these numbers are certainly good for the company–and Ford has thus far been successful at branding the new Fusion Hybrid as “green”–I wanted to see if that growth could be at all explained by an authentic step in an environmentally-friendly direction for the company.
At first blush, the Fusion is a good looking and comfortable vehicle with a cool user interface and a comfortable ride. The Fusion isn’t cheap. Starting at $27,625, it costs about five thousand bucks more than a brand 3rd Generation Toyota Prius. And at 41 miles per gallon (hwy), it won’t get the mileage that the 51-mpg Prius will. But in terms of comfort, features, and its larger size, the Fusion is really more like a Toyota Camry than a Prius.
The first thing that I noticed when I got behind the wheel was that the Fusion’s user interface has a lot going on. They call it the Dual LCD SmartGauge Cluster with Eco Guide that provides real-time information to help you squeeze the most efficiency from your Fusion Hybrid. While it could be a little overwhelming for the easily distracted, after making myself familiar with the cluster, I found the gauges to be plenty informative without having to look directly at them.
The SmartGauge with EcoGuide uses LCD screens on either side of the center-mounted speedometer. (A tutorial built into the display lets you choose one of four data screens for the level of information you want – Inform, Enlighten, Engage or Empower – and explains your options within each. Nick had already done this by the time he picked me up at the airport and gave me quick run-through.)
On the data screen setting we opted for, the LCD screen on the left had guages indicating fuel level, battery level and miles per hour (with the EcoGuide indicator telling you when you are driving in EV-mode). You keep it in the green zone on the EcoGuide and the 2.5L Atkinson-Cycle I-4 Hybrid engine shuts off and runs completely off of the high-power NiMH battery. Keep it in the green and you are essentially driving an electric car.
Driving the Fusion, I couldn’t really notice when the car shifted between gas-powered and electric-powered, the transition was seamless. The smooth transition can be explained by the fact that there is no progression of gear changes light you are accustomed to.
The right-hand screen had a display for small green leaves, when you drive more efficiently, the display will grow more leaves, when you don’t they will fade away. I found the immediate feedback to be a useful motivational tool without being a big distraction.
When all was said and done, we were able to average almost 39 mpg for the entire 328 mile trip. But considering that we made good use of the vehicle to charge our peripherals and gadgets; and hit some heavy construction and stop-and-start festival traffic, I think the Fusion’s mileage claims lived up to their billing.
One particularly helpful feature we discovered about the car was that it would–while in “Park” and with the key in the ignition–turn on the engine by itself to charge its depleting battery. Since we were making such heavy use of the car’s battery to charge our electrical accessories via the Fusion’s USB and AC charge-ports while we were at the festival (cameras, PDAs, computers, batteries, etc.), we found this to be a real bonus to those who might like to use their cars in a situation like the one we were in, tailgating, car-camping, or just listening to the stereo real loud at home in your driveway.
The cruise control feature on the Fusion is a little bit different than what you’re used to, so much so that Ford decided to name it, ‘Speed Control’. The difference between the two is that cruise control on most cars will do whatever they have to do to keep speed. That means when you are driving uphill, the computer will feed more gasoline to the engine to maintain that speed. The Speed Control feature of the Fusion will ease up a little, understanding that the hill likely won’t last forever and that a few miles per hour under the chosen speed is much more efficient than gunning the engine.
While the much anticipated Ford Fusion is a tech-lover’s dream and an overall excellent car, there are a few technical glitches we discovered over our extended test-drive. The Microsoft navigation interface was a little clunky at times, requiring one too many buttons and screens to navigate through just to perform fairly simple operations. The rear-view camera was a neat addition but the on-board obstacle sensor seemed way too eager to tell us when something was anywhere near us (like in a parking lot).
While the Fusion maybe a little late to the hybrid vehicle game, Ford is betting big that their new flagship sedan will make a big splash into the U.S. car market, and in so doing, helping the company position itslef as the lean, green, and profitable leader of the big U.S. auto companies.
Author Tim Hurst is the executive editor of Live Oak Media.
Article appearing courtesy of Celsias