Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Can Ford's Fusion Compete with Accord, Camry?

Make no mistake about it - Ford’s future quite likely depends to a great extent upon the success or failure of the Fusion, Dearborn’s latest entry in the mid-size family car contest that Honda and Toyota have dominated for a decade. Can the Fusion beat the Japanese?

Well, let’s end the suspense on that question right off the bat. On the sales side, there is no contest. Ford sold just fewer than 30,000 Fusions during the first quarter of 2006, compared to nearly 77,000 Accords and almost 94,000 Camrys. Even Hyundai sold more of its reconfigured Sonata at nearly 43,000 for the quarter.

But the sales numbers don’t begin to tell the whole story here. The Camry and Accord have been the top dogs for so long; they have legions of repeat buyers. Yes, like Ford and Chevy used to have. By contrast, the Fusion is the new kid on the block, so lots of prospective buyers haven’t yet taken a look.

Here’s my take: The Fusion is very, very competitive and could be the new top dog with some refinement under the hood and improved visible assembly and finish quality. Two things could keep that from happening – lack of refinement under the hood and the need for more visible, tangible quality feel.

Exterior styling is crisp and attractive, especially in the black that Ford thinks best shows off the Fusion’s lines. The new Ford trademark front grille may not wear so well five years down the road, but there is a distinctly Euro element in the Fusion’s appearance that should help it.

Ride and handling are more responsive and communicative than one expects in a family sedan, but again it’s more of a European tautness than an Accord-like friskiness. The difference here is probably a product of the too weak powerplant under the hood. Mazda6 owners driving the Fusion will quickly recognize a familiar mount because the two share platforms.

The optional 3.0 liter 221 horsepower V-6 is adequate, especially coupled with Ford’s six-speed automatic transmission. But the 8.18 second 0-60 mph time for the Fusion pales in comparison to the Accord V-6’s sub-seven second time. The Camry V-6 is quicker as well.

The Fusion’s interior is impressively simple and soft for the most part, with a very European tone. But there are some kinks, including oddly located environmental controls and a turn signal stalk that looked like it had been misplaced.

Give the Fusion more power and tighten up the fit and finish. Keep the Euro looks and handling and the high-value pricing that put my loaded tester at $25,650. The Fusion can be a Ford home run, but it’s not guaranteed.