By Alex Taylor III
March 27, 2009

Just arriving on the market, Ford’s Fusion Hybrid is being acclaimed as the best of its breed.

Jim Healy, veteran car reviewer for USA Today, called it “the best gasoline-electric hybrid yet.” Automobile declared it “a better car” than the Camry hybrid, offering “a compelling combination of exceptional economy, acceptable performance, and a high degree of livability.”

Anecdotal support for those claims came from a couple of Detroit-area parking valets who offered their unsolicited observations when I was there to test drive the Fusion. Presumably jaundiced from seeing the best of Motor City iron, they nevertheless raved about the hybrid’s quiet running in electric mode and overall good looks. (Then again, they may be accustomed to stroking the drivers of new cars in the belief that they work for their manufacturers and may express their gratitude with bigger tips).

I’m not going to argue with any of them. Restyled for 2010 with new nose and butt jobs, the Fusion is a handsome American midsize car that is robust, roomy, and reliable. You would not be embarrassed to drive it anywhere.

The dashboard reflects a bit more of Ford’s truck heritage than I’d like to see in a passenger car, with strong vertical and horizontal lines. And my preproduction test car had some wide gaps that an engineer assured me would be corrected when the Fusion reaches dealers.

The interface between the electric and gasoline engines in the Fusion is as seamless as any other, with no noticeable shudder when the software shifts the drivetrain between the two systems. The Japanese may have invented hybrid drive but Ford is certainly refining it.

For the civic-minded, supporting hybrids because they minimize environmental impact is recommendation enough for the Fusion. More literal people like me will want to take a closer look at the tradeoff between the higher price of the hybrid system – $3,200 in this instance – and the improvement in fuel economy.

The EPA rates the Fusion at 41 miles gallon city/36 miles per gallon highway. But as they say in the ads, your mileage will differ. A couple of hundred miles of driving on the pancake-flat (if potholed) roads of southeastern Michigan yielded me only a smidgen over 34 mpg.

I have to admit, I wasn’t paying particular attention to the fuel-saving prompts on the Fusion’s elaborate instrument panel, nor was I being especially smart about avoiding sudden acceleration and panic braking.

Nonetheless – while that is nearly a 50% improvement over the 23 mpg in the gasoline-only Fusion, it may not be enough to compensate for the higher cost, reduced trunk space, and limited availability.

If, on the other hand, you want to patriotically support the only American car company not currently requesting aid from the federal government, then the Fusion is for you.

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