43.1 mpg on the streets of LA!

Click above for high-res gallery of the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

While General Motors and Chrysler basically turned out the lights on their presence at the LA Auto Show last month, Ford kicked off one of its biggest product onslaughts in decades. The 2010 Mustang may have captured the hearts of enthusiasts, but the heavily refreshed Fusion and its Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ siblings are the mainstream high volume models that will garner the big sales numbers. The Fusion lineup was expanded in both the performance and efficiency directions with new Sport and Hybrid variants.

When we returned to Los Angeles this week to drive the Fusions, the festivities opened up with an afternoon spent getting a flavor for Ford's newest hybrid. We've already written extensively about the updated hybrid powertrain, but this was our first time behind the wheel. Following a briefing on the key features from the Ford engineering team, fellow Autoblogger Drew Phillips and I were joined by Gil Portalatin, Hybrid Applications Manager, for our test drive. Read all about how we achieved 43.1 mpg after the jump.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

As we all known by now, hybrid vehicles are at their best in urban environments where speeds are limited and there's plenty of opportunity for deceleration to recharge the battery through regenerative braking. So naturally the Ford communications staff defined a route that took us right through the traffic of Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the surrounding area. The route consisted of two legs, with Drew and I each driving one of the legs.

Portalatin, who is among the most familiar with the workings of the Ford hybrid system, went out the day before our arrival to drive the route and set baseline standards for mileage. We weren't told in advance what Portalatin's results were, we just had to drive and do the best we could. We set out from Marina Del Rey with three of us and our camera gear in the car.

With Drew at the wheel first, it immediately became apparent that the most stand out behavior of the Fusion Hybrid is that nothing really stands out. As we drove, there were no hiccups, no stumbles and no shuddering when the engine started and stopped. The car just moved ahead when pressing the accelerator and slowed down when applying the brake. It was also remarkably quiet.

Each segment of the drive was about 18-19 miles and temperatures in the 70s meant we could comfortably drive with the air conditioning off, which we did. For those who choose to use the A/C, Ford has tried to optimize the control of the system. Portalatin told us that the new electrically driven system can be controlled to minimize the power load of the system. Being electrically driven means that it continues to operate even when the engine is shut off.

All the Fusions, including the hybrid, are much more refined for 2010 with effort spent particularly on noise, vibration and harshness. Structural components have been enhanced to reduce vibrations, while new seals and acoustic materials keep out exterior ambient noise and absorb what does get through.

When we drove the 2009 Escape Hybrid a few months ago, we found that Ford had improved the control strategies for the engine and hybrid transmission to make the transitions and blending more seamless. Those software upgrades are further enhanced and combined with the updated hardware to make this the most seamless hybrid yet. The starting and stopping of the engine is almost completely imperceptible now.

When I got behind the wheel, I immediately zeroed in on the new SmartGauge cluster. Ford had preset all the cars to the most advanced Empower mode, which provides the maximum information, including the power gauge. I actually found the power gauge to the be the key to getting the best fuel consumption. This bar graph gauge features a red bar indicating the current power output from the drive train. There is also a sliding window indicating the range within which electric drive mode is available under the current conditions.

Harder acceleration causes the EV window to the shrink. Back off the accelerator and the window expands. The size of the window is dependent on several factors including the temperature, driver demand and battery state of charge. As the power output needle falls within the EV window, the engine shuts off. The key turns out to be to modulate the accelerator to keep the needle inside the window.

Spending more time with the Fusion would certainly lead to getting a better feel for maximizing mileage without constantly looking at the gauge. However, really maxing out the fuel economy takes a lot of concentration. This level of concentration is probably far more than can be expected of most drivers. They will likely find themselves just looking at the leaves that grow as driving becomes more efficient. Our guess is that, realistically, most drivers will probably see numbers in the mid- to upper-30 mpg range.

Ford hybrid boss Portalatin achieved 46 mpg on the first segment and 43.5 mpg on the second segment. Steve Siler of Car and Driver got 43.6 on the first leg followed closely be Steve Levy of AutoFiends.com. Drew managed 36.4 mpg. On the second segment I came closer to Portalatin's standard at 43.1 mpg. For a time, when we were in a section with plenty of downhills and little traffic, my mileage was up over 46 mpg. I never put the car in neutral or did any pulse and glide techniques. And at city speeds, drafting was not an option.

Putting the transmission in neutral would actually be counterproductive because it would disable the deceleration fuel shut-off that Ford has programmed in. Basically, my technique consisted of simply accelerating at the slowest practical rate that would allow me to stay in EV mode as long as possible without being a rolling roadblock, and anticipating that lights ahead would turn red and coasting in the hopes that they would turn green again and minimize my speed loss.

For those who want to keep the Fusion in EV mode, watching the power gauge was actually very important because the hybrid system is so seamless and quiet. Just driving along, it's difficult to discern if the engine is running without looking down. The Continental-supplied brake system on the Fusion worked without any noticeable transitions between friction and regenerative braking. The combination of the 2.5L four cylinder and the electric drive yield a net 191 hp, which is enough to give the 3,720-lb sedan brisk acceleration when needed.

Take a look at the Fusion hybrid and you won't notice any significant visual differences from the conventional models. That doesn't mean Ford hasn't paid attention to aerodynamics. Portalatin told us that the pockets around the front fog lights are completely closed off on the hybrid while the honeycomb mesh on the regular models is open to allow more airflow. The hybrid also gets unique wheels. Unlike the Honda Civic Hybrid, which has flat disk wheels, the 17-inch alloys on the Fusion don't look obviously aerodynamic. According to Portalatin, the key turned out to be the size of the openings between the spokes. Once those openings get below a certain size, when the wheels are turning as the car moves, it essentially acts as though it is a flat disk.

Overall, the Fusion hybrid is an outstanding effort on Ford's part. The engineering team led by Gil Portalatin and JD Shanahan has wrought improvements across the board on the mid-size sedan family. At this moment in time, the hybrid in particular appears to be the head of the class by a significant margin. Of course, Toyota and other competitors never sleep and the Camry will surely get updated soon. Hyundai also has a Sonata Hybrid coming later in 2010. However, the Fusion Hybrid is a car that buyers looking for a high-mileage sedan should definitely consider.

As we said, most Fusion Hybrid drivers will see numbers of around 35-37 mpg, which is excellent considering everything else the Fusion has to offer. Those who insist on eking out every extra mile from a gallon will find the SmartGauge a very helpful addition. If there is one addition we might like to see for hyper-milers, it would be a heads up display for the power-gauge. This would allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road while utilizing the information that is available.

The Fusion hybrid will be going on sale early in 2009 and Ford will announce pricing closer to the on-sale date. For those not enamored with the Fusion's bold chrome grille, the same car (essentially) is available from your local Mercury dealer as the Milan Hybrid. Take your pick and try one out for yourself.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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