We've spent the entire week with the 2006 Ford Fusion I4 Manual and we've come away with the same impression as we did with its V6 sibling. The Fusion with either powerplant is a family car with a heaping helping of fun thrown on its plate, like peas and carrots with a side of cookie dough ice cream. With this model the lack of power (160 hp vs. 220 hp) is somewhat offset by the fact you get to row your own gears, but is the top of the line SEL with a four-cylinder powerplant a smart choice? Let's see…

2006 Ford Fusion SEL I4 Manual

First let?s talk about how the I4 coupled with its 5-speed manual performed. As mentioned, the fact that the power of gear selection is left to your own mental faculties instead of the car?s onboard computer makes driving more fun in any car. Manual gear selection is a skill in which one can take pride, almost a dying art in this day and age, so the fact the I4 can be had with a standard shift while the V6 model cannot is a big plus. At some point in the near future the four-cylinder model will also get the choice of a 5-speed automatic, although it?s listed on Ford?s website as ?late availability?.

While a sense of speed is present in this version of the Fusion, the actual speed really isn?t. Many times I caught myself at a light feeling like I had gotten the jump on my pretend competitor in the next lane, only to have him in his Impala effortlessly pull away. The 2.3L four-cylinder is backed by 156 lb-ft. of torque, which is spread as thin as butter on toast across the power band. The I4 Fusion SEL is, however, 179 lbs. lighter than the V6 SEL, which was not lost on us as we chucked the car through some corners and on ramps. Again, despite the four-cylinder being down on power the car?s excellent chassis and lower weight contribute to a decent sense of speed. All of which is to say that this model is just as fun to drive as the V6 SEL, but in a totally different way.

2006 Ford Fusion SEL I4 Manual

After spending some time with the I4 SEL we couldn?t help but regret that we hadn?t snagged a base I4 S model. Nearly everything about the two SEL models is identical except for the engine and transmission. The suspension, wheels and brakes are all the same here as on the version we already reviewed. Both models we?ve driven were also optioned to the hilt, which ballooned their prices into a range well above $20K. Our I4 SEL that came with the optional Safety and Security package ($595), SEL Premium package ($395), heated front seats ($295), anti-lock brakes ($595), leather seating ($895) and Audiophile sound system ($420) stickered at $22,180. That?s more money than the V6 SEL?s base price ($21,710). Jettison all the options on the SEL I4 and you get its base price, a much more palatable $18,985. We?re guessing that a loaded SEL I4 like our tester will be the least sold Fusion, with more models being sold at the higher end with a V6 and lower end with few options.

Of course, there may be those out there who see the Fusion SEL I4?s combination of above average handling, convincing sense of speed and better gas mileage as reason enough to choose it over the V6 model. The two cars both do well on the EPA mileage cycle, however, with the I4 returning 23 city/31 highway and the V6 returning 21 city/29 highway. If you?re like us, chances are you?ll be enjoying the manual transmission in this family sedan way too much to ever hit the I4?s mileage numbers, though.

2006 Ford Fusion SEL I4 Manual

What we?d really like to know is whether the base Fusion I4 S is really a bargain at $17,795 or a stripped-to-the-bone version of the two sedans we?ve already driven. As for this tale of two SELs, we can say that in the end they?re about even in our book. You get more power and a slick tranny in the V6 model but less weight and a chance to row your own boat with the I4. You can pick your poison and wouldn?t go wrong with either, although we?d still probably opt for the V6 version because its larger displacement makes for a less labored engine under the hood. Part of the I4?s sense of speed can be traced directly back to the more hurried and raucous sound of all four pots pumping wildly in front of you.

We?ll close the book on the Fusion for now and wait patiently with our hands folded for a future date with another relative ? the Lincoln Zephyr ? and the arrival of Ford?s new 250-hp, 3.5L V6. Then we?re going to have to do this all over again. Sheesh.

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