2010 Ford Fusion SEL – Click above for high-res image gallery

Last month at the LA Auto Show, Ford finally took the wraps off its refreshed 2010 Fusion and this week we returned to LA to actually drive it. For a car meant to compete in the heart of the highest volume segment in the U.S. market, Ford chose a rather surprising way to show it off. This is after all a segment long dominated by cars that typically have more in common with a Kenmore refrigerator than a Corvette.

We kicked off the festivities with a mileage challenge through downtown Beverly Hills and Hollywood in the Fusion Hybrid, but then things got really interesting. The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord have seemingly been the top selling cars in America since they supplanted the Model T early in the last century. After a similar number of decades of soulless, unattractive and unreliable alternatives, U.S. automakers have been battling back in recent years with mixed success. Since the Fusion debuted in 2006, it has earned a reputation of being among the most fun to drive offerings in the segment, as well as having quality on par with the Japanese brands. For 2010, the crew in Dearborn have focused on enhancing what was already good and getting best in class in efficiency with more style. Read on to find out if they succeeded.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

Our day of driving the Fusion started off with Ford shuttling us out to the parking lot at the Hollywood Park horse track for some stopping, starting, turning and reversing. Since the Camry is top seller in the mid-size segment, that's what Ford had on hand for our comparison testing. Three different events were set up on the tarmac at Hollywood Park meant to showcase the dynamic capabilities of the Fusion.

Here at Autoblog central, which happens to be wherever we can pick up a wifi or EVDO connection, we are well aware that we don't necessarily represent the automotive mainstream. In fact, many would consider us the lunatic fringe of the automotive spectrum. We don't see cars as appliances but rather as tools to wield as we get from point A to point B via points X,Y,Z. We prefer to be engaged by our transportation. We like to hear the sound of tire tread wearing away as we aim for the apexes and feel the forces in our steering wheel as the wheels try to change direction of the car.

Of course, we can't all afford to drive a Cadillac CTS-V, Dodge Viper and Ford GT everyday. That's why many of us have always taken a liking to cars like the Fusion that are attainable yet still provide some of those exciting characteristics we want in a car that can also haul the groceries and a child seat.

We kicked off our evaluation of the Fusion and Camry on a short course with a slalom and an emergency lane change maneuver that highlighted the new standard electronic stability control on the Fusion. We took a few runs in the Camry first and unfortunately, like many, Toyota's the slip control left much to be desired. The system intervened early and aggressively slowing the car significantly. As the brakes were being modulated on the front wheels, vibration could be felt through the steering wheel, and understeer was so severe in the lane change maneuver that it felt like the outside front tire was rolling under.

The Fusion, on the other hand, was much better balanced and its stability control allowed the car to slide just enough that the driver could feel the limits of adhesion. The system then applied the brakes and managed the engine torque smoothly, keeping things on an even keel without feeling like a nanny. We were able to get the through the slalom about 4-5 mph faster in the Fusion than in the Toyota (both 4-cylinder, automatic models)

Similarly on the autocross course, the Camry proved to be an understeering slug that was extremely reluctant to change direction. Turning the steering wheel was like using an old video game wheel with no force feedback. The effort was overly light and the angle seemed to have little relationship to where the car was going. One other steering problem the Camry exhibited was a tendency to run out of steering assist during the slalom where the sequence of left-right steering inputs demanded more than the power steering pump could supply. The electric power steering on the Fusion exhibited no such issues.

Being a front-wheel-drive, mainstream sedan, the Fusion still understeers at the limit as would be expected, but overall it was much better balanced and trail-braking into corners helped bring the back end around on the tighter turns. The steering actually provided some feedback, although at ten-tenths a bit more would be appreciated. The only other complaint would be a desire for more braking power and grip, although Ford certainly had to provide a balance between adhesion, rolling resistance and noise.

The final parking lot event was literally a parking lot event. We had a short acceleration zone intended to demonstrate the more linear throttle response of the 2010 engines compared to the 2009 Fusion. This was followed by a full lock turn to demonstrate the reduced turning radius of the new front suspension geometry. Those trying to maneuver in tight parking lots will definitely appreciate this improvement. Finally, a reverse slalom and parking maneuver allowed us to try the new rear view camera and improved rear visibility. The lump on the rear package shelf that previously held the center brake lamp has been removed and the lamp is now integrated into the trunk lid.

After lunch at the Chart House restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway, it was time to attack the canyons. Drew Phillips and I got into a Fusion Sport with J D Shanahan, the Fusion's chief engineer. The beauty of roads like Topanga Canyon, Malibu Canyon and Mulholland Drive is that they have to follow the contours of the canyons, meaning they typically don't go straight for any length of time.

The Fusion Sport is the new top end model equipped with the same 263-horsepower 3.5L V6 engine and 6F50 6-speed automatic transmission used in the Lincoln MKZ and most of Ford's big sedans and crossovers. The 3.5L has plenty of power and the Fusion chassis proved eminently capable of handling the twisting switchbacks. Some of the pavement actually gets surprisingly bumpy (nothing like the craters we have in Michigan), putting the Fusion's mechanical grip to the test.

Shanahan explained that the rear suspension geometry was heavily modified. The pivot points for the control arms were moved so that the roll-center was moved closer to the center of gravity of the car. The result is that the body has less inherent tendency to roll. This allowed Shanahan's chassis team to use a softer stabilizer bar in the rear facilitating more independent motion of the rear wheels. The bottom line is that the car has both increased roll stiffness and better ride quality and road holding.

The Fusion exhibits admirable handling characteristics when pushed hard and never feels harsh. As on the autocross, it understeers at the limit but feels surprisingly neutral up to about 9/10s and any intervention from the stability control was subtle enough to go almost unnoticed. Again, a bit more deceleration grip would be appreciated, but even in miles of hard driving the brakes never exhibited any fade.

The brakes were easy to modulate, although some other drivers complained of a slightly soft pedal. This was likely due to some knock-back. During hard cornering the brake pads and caliper pistons can get pushed back due to some motion of the rotor that results from lateral forces. This can also happen on bumpy roads. When it occurs, the next time you apply the brakes, the pedal moves further than normal until the pad comes back in contact with the rotor surface. On subsequent applies, the piston seal should keep the pad in the right position, eliminating the problem unless continued hard cornering causes more knock-back.

After a break we switched to a 3.0L V6 Fusion, which Drew and I agreed actually felt even better balanced than the sport as a result of the lower drivetrain weight. The 3.0L has nearly as much power as the larger engine (240 vs. 263 hp) and the updated version has very linear power delivery thanks to its new throttle control and variable valve timing. The 3.0L is also flex fuel capable and running on E85 will bump the power up from 240 to 250 hp.

For real driving enthusiasts, the Fusion of choice might actually be the four-cylinder, six-speed manual version. The 2.5L now puts out 171 hp, and with the manual transmission would be the lightest, least nose heavy Fusion. We didn't get to drive one in LA this time, so look forward to trying one out soon. All of the cars we tested had automatic transmissions, with the V6 cars adding a manual select shift gate. We're generally not a fan of these manual mode automatics since we like the rhythm of clutching and shifting.

Having said that, Ford at least has the orientation of the sequential shift gate in what we consider to be the correct position. Tap backwards for an up-shift and forwards for a down shift. Ford's manual shifting algorithm also includes some nice touches for enthusiasts. The powertrain control matches the revs of the engine and transmission during shifts just as a good driver would do. In manual mode, the transmission also won't force an up-shift, instead just letting the engine go to red-line and hold the selected gear. The shifts themselves came quickly in response to a tap, making it easy to select the right gear for the conditions in the canyons.

For what started as a mid-cycle refresh, Ford management including product development VP Derrick Kuzak deserves credit for recognizing the importance of the mid-size segment and making far more extensive changes than were originally planned. The new Fusion was remarkably quiet and refined whether we were cruising on the freeway or blasting through a canyon. Shanahan told us that among other changes, a damper was added to the roof of the car to cut vibrations. New seals and acoustic components in several areas also help keep out noises and absorb those that do get in. The changes are applied across the board, including the hybrid model, and this is certainly one of the quietest sedans in this market segment.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Aside from the hybrid, with which we got over 43 mpg, we didn't have a chance to evaluate fuel consumption of the conventional gas-powered Fusions. Real world evaluation will have to wait until we get one in the Autoblog Garage sometime in the near future. The final EPA numbers are still being calculated, but Ford is claiming that the Fusion will beat the current class leading Camry by at least 2-3 mpg across all model variants. Based on the performance of the hybrid, we're willing to give Ford the benefit of the doubt on this one.

The new Fusion will go on sale early in 2009. Some 2010 production is due to start this month, but the holiday shutdown of the Hermosillo plant has been extended through the end of January to allow Ford to sell down the remaining 2008 and 2009 models.

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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