Review: 2011 Ford Fusion SE 6MT
By Charles Krome
First, let me acknowledge that I’ve been on a bit of a streak with Ford coverage, but that’s just synchronicity—I’m not really working undercover for the Blue Oval. Of course, my review of the Lincoln MKS should be enough proof of that.
Okay, now on to the Ford Fusion, which, as is always the case, was provided to me with a full tank of gas by its automaker.
To set the stage, it’s helpful to note that the Fusion was the fifth-best-selling vehicle in the U.S. last month—and the third-best-selling car—and even though some of that certainly had to do with Japanese supply issues, both real and perceived, it’s clear the car is still a hot seller. That is, a lot of folks think Ford is doing something right here.
The car definitely strikes a nice balance between sophistication and athleticism—it’s also definitely a car that looks much better in person than it does on the screen. The front of the car especially seems a lot less awkward in the flesh, with that three-blade grille blending into the same slope as the leading edge of the hood in a very natural way. There’s not much going on with the flanks of the car, but this is a situation in which less is more. The character line through the door handles is subtly done, and combines with the line created over the door handles, that extends back over the rear wheels, to give the Fusion a dynamic, ready-to-pounce appearance that really grew on me.
Also, I don’t like overly-smiley vehicles, and the Fusion scores some points from me because its lower air-inlet and lights don’t make me feel the car is laughing at me. (Although I somehow forgot to take a straight-on picture of the Fusion!)
The “power dome” hood of the Fusion is worth noting as well. It’s become a relatively common cue to use sort of convex hood shapes—see the Buick Lacrosse as a prime example—so the Ford design stands out without being busy. The rear of the car is less successful, although I like the position of the CHMSL (yeah, that would be the center high-mounted safety lamp) and the way it helps create an interesting shape around the license-plate inset area. I suppose the optional spoiler, part of an $895 appearance package, helps, and Ford again gets the details right by including a rear valance that adds a finished appearance to the bottom of the car.
And for those who are curious, the Fusion passed the Krome roof seal test with flying colors. The end of the seal, as you can see in the picture, is simply folded down for a clean, smooth finish. Fiesta designers should take note.
Overall, you’d never get the idea from the exterior of the Fusion that you were looking at the second-least-expensive model from the car’s seven-model lineup, showcasing a “standard vehicle price” of $21,375. That’s an important factor here for me, because even though I’ve often complained in the past that Ford is moving away from its role as a provider of basic transportation with cars like the Fiesta and Focus, the Fusion SE does represent one of the automaker’s efforts to reach customers on a budget.
And this comes through most clearly when you enter the Fusion’s cabin, where you’re met with plenty of of hard plastics and “blank” buttons that would otherwise operate some of the premium content available at higher trim levels. Fit and finish were still generally good throughout the interior, but there just weren’t a lot of pieces that needed to fit or be finished.
But, yet once more, you can see where Ford is making a noticeable effort to avoid looking cheap, with touches like the nice plastic accent that stretches across the dash in front of the passenger, and the funky seat graphics with sporty piping. Those seats were adequately comfortable as well, with the kind of aggressive bolstering that I prefer. The center stack, with the audio and climate controls, is a nice piece of work, simple but effective, with the switchgear easy to use and figure out. The graphics for the main gauges are pretty cool, too, but my sense is that these don’t change much as you go up the pricing ladder, so Ford made a wise decision to design them to attract the highest common denominator, not the lowest.
The budgetary impact on the interior also shows up in the low level of available SYNC functionality, which is pretty much limited to controlling the auxiliary audio input and making/taking phone calls. Without a nav system, and without the ability to control the radio, I’d likely skip SYNC entirely and save some money. I can report that the voice-recognition capabilities that were available were better and more smoothly integrated in the Fusion than in the Acura TL I just drove.
I had no complaints from any passengers, front or back, but none took up a lot of space to start with. A quick check of the spec sheets shows the Fusion’s interior volume biased more toward trunk space than passenger space, though. In fact, while it had the most trunk room of any of the mainstream mid-size sedans,* it also had the second-least amount of passenger volume, with only the Chevy Malibu having a smaller cabin.
Another minor nit comes to the fore when in the driver’s seat: There is no control stalk of any kind on the right side of the steering column, and the empty, unused space in that area just seemed to me to unbalance the car, esthetically speaking. This isn’t just a result of the fact this car had a six-speed manual transmission, either; the automatic used in the Fusion relies on a floor-mounted shifter as well, so the design weirdness extends across the lineup.
On the other hand, what having a DIY transmission does do is increase the amount of fun you can have driving the Fusion. The car is no kind of high performer, but it weighs under 3,300 lbs., and the six-speed allows you to really get the most out of the I4 engine’s 175 hp/172 lb.-ft. of torque. It makes for an interesting comparison with the Fiesta I drove recently, which used a five-speed manual, 120 hp and 112 lb.-ft. of torque to haul around a bit over 2,500 lbs. Using the exact numbers from the Ford spec sheets, the Fusion has a power-to-weight ratio of 18.77 lbs. per hp, while the Fiesta’s was notably higher, at 21.44 lbs. per hp, helping to explain why the former felt so much lighter on its feet than the latter.
That being said, the Fusion’s gearbox was nowhere near as smooth as the Fiesta’s, and while its clunkiness wasn’t overly distracting, the Fusion’s steering needs to be addressed. I’ve heard/read my share of horror stories about electric power steering, but this was the first time a car really lived down to that technology’s generally poor reputation. I could literally wiggle the steering wheel an inch or so off center before the front wheels noticed, and this became a bit of a sore point for me as time went on. It’s really a shame, too, since the car’s braking, and ride and handling all felt above average, and adding in that peppy powertrain, you could really enjoy driving the car if it weren’t for that steering.
Yet despite my rather aggressive driving style, the Fusion did return a bit over 20 mpg, essentially in line with what I’d expect from a car rated at 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway/24 mpg combined. And while opting for an automatic transmission may reduce on-the-road performance, it does up the Fusion’s EPA marks to 23/33/27 if you prefer to go that route. Which brings us to my biggest problem with the Fusion. There’s a nice case to be made for this car as an affordable, yet non-boring mid-size sedan, except when you get to the issue of fuel efficiency. Except for the Chrysler products, the Fusion with the six-speed manual has the lowest EPA ratings of any of its direct competitors, even those that only offer automatic transmissions. And the difference is not insignificant.
The mainstream mid-size sedans that offer manuals (and their EPA lines) are the Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima (24/35/28), Toyota Camry (22/33/26) and Honda Accord (23/33/27). The South Koreans, as expected, offer a particularly tough-to-beat value proposition, and when you look at those EPA marks, and remember that they come with an extra 25 hp, I don’t think the Fusion is quite up to the task.
But then, not many vehicles in this industry are.
*IMHO (and in alphabetical order): Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200/Dodge Avenger, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry.