Ford Fusion a strong contender in the hybrid battle

The best gasoline-electric hybrid car is …

Well, what is it?

If you asked me that question 12 months ago I would have made an argument for the Ford Fusion Hybrid: great engineering, best combination of fuel economy and performance, strong balance of ride and handling and some nifty features like the “growing vine” display in the instrument cluster that speaks to your “green” driving or lack thereof.

Sure, sure, the Fusion Hybrid ($34,199) has a trunk squeezed by the battery, which also prevents a fold-down rear seatback. The lack of an all-wheel-drive option is an issue, too.

But if not having AWD troubles potential Fusion Hybrid buyers, it should do the same for anyone considering Toyota’s Camry Hybrid ($31,310), Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid ($29,999), Kia’s upcoming Optima Hybrid (pricing TBA) and the soon-to-be-discontinued Nissan Altima Hybrid ($33,398).

Those clear-cut four-door sedan rivals are all sold only with front-wheel drive (FWD), just the same as the Fusion Hybrid and the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid ($42,200), as well. Toyota’s Prius hybrid ($27,800) – the world’s best-selling hybrid by far – is strictly FWD, too.

Ford launched the Fusion Hybrid for the 2010 model year to great fanfare and much applause. Even Consumer Reports rated the Ford Fusion Hybrid its top domestic sedan, tying with the Toyota Camry Hybrid for overall ranking. For fuel economy junkies, the Fusion Hybrid delivers 4.6 litres/100 km in the city, 5.4 on the highway.

That’s still the best among all hybrid sedans, though the Prius hatchback at 3.7 litres/100 km tops the Ford. Ah, but the Sonata Hybrid is best in class for highway fuel economy at 4.6 litres/100 km. Kia’s Optima Hybrid will deliver similarly good news at the fuel pump.

Numbers aside, the Fusion Hybrid delivers some pretty sophisticated engineering – engineering reflected in quiet and smooth integration between electric and mechanical systems. Unlike with earlier hybrids, including Ford’s Escape Hybrid, the Fusion does not suffer mysterious clunks and mushy brakes. Ford’s brainiacs have managed some very tidy engineering here.

Of course, that discussion starts with the powertrain, which is a blend of not just the electric systems but the gas engine, too. The hybrid’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine puts out 156 horsepower using what is called the “Atkinson” cycle – which holds open the intake valve longer during the piston’s first stroke, but at the sacrifice of power. (Google this if you want more.)

The Fusion Hybrid’s electric motor makes up for the lack of gas engine power, and more. It provides instant, on-demand thrust when you need it, working in tandem with the gas-fired engine. Total output: a combined 191 horsepower and respectable acceleration of less than nine seconds to 100 km/h.

Ford’s engineers will also tell you that making a hybrid work well is all about paying attention to details, making many small tweaks, and mastering tricks ranging from sorting out variable timing on the intake cam to refining the continuously variable transmission and the upgraded braking system that recaptures energy fairly smoothly.

There’s more, too. Ford’s hybrid here has a reasonably small and light nickel-metal hydride battery pack (tucked between the trunk and rear seats), though Hyundai and Kia are using a lithium polymer battery.

The Korean auto makers’ batteries are arguably more sophisticated than Ford’s and Toyota’s. That said, the Fusion Hybrid can go up to 75 km/h running solely on electricity and range on a full tank of gas can be more than 1,100 km.

From the outside, the Fusion Hybrid has only the odd badge to distinguish it from the regular Fusion. But inside, the green identity is obvious.

The key elements in the cockpit are detailed feedback systems dubbed “SmartGauge with EcoGuide” that delivers fuel economy and power usage data in clear and non-distracting ways.

For the driver, it’s easy to toggle through four levels of feedback: “Inform” shows fuel level and battery charge status; “Enlighten” adds electric vehicle mode indicator and a tachometer; “Engage” adds more details on engine output power and battery output power; and “Empower” give the tech geek even more information about power going to the wheels and accessory power consumption.

The simplest way to get a handle on your “green” driving is a rendering of a vine that appears in the right of the dash. Drive efficiently and green leaves appear and multiply on the vine. Drive like a lead-foot, and the leaves disappear. True believers in eco-friendly driving will love this complex feedback system – it’s user friendly and eye-grabbing.

Ford set the bar high with the Fusion Hybrid, delivering a mid-size sedan that demands few sacrifices in ride comfort and performance – if any at all – for dramatically increased fuel efficiency, especially in the city. I wouldn’t call the Fusion Hybrid a zesty sedan, but it is hardly sluggish and pretty decent in the corners and when doing the parking lot shuffle.

But this is a moving target. Hyundai and Kia are the newest players and they’ve done a good job of making hybrids more affordable. This explains why you’ll find several thousand dollars in incentives on the Fusion Hybrid. Toyota is about to launch a raft of upgraded hybrids, too.

The hybrid wars are not only continuing, but intensifying.

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