Test Drive: 2010 Ford Fusion is best gas-electric hybrid yet

OK, let's just get it out there: The 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid is the best gasoline-electric hybrid yet.

What makes it best is a top-drawer blend of an already very good midsize sedan with the industry's smoothest, best-integrated gas-electric power system. It's so well-done that you have to look to the $107,000 Lexus LS 600h hybrid to come close.

Fusion's $28,000 starting price is more or less in reach, the driving feel is good, and the interior has a premium look and feel.

There are three facets to consider in evaluating a gasoline-electric hybrid: the underlying vehicle itself, the hybrid system and the mileage.

Assuming the preproduction Fusion hybrid test car was representative — Ford says it was — the Fusion's scores in those three categories are good, great and adequate, but potentially, very good.

The Toyota Prius crowd will protest. Prius is lower-priced, has about the same room inside, has a handy hatchback configuration, gets better mileage — and most of those attributes could improve when the 2010 Prius goes on sale in a few months — so how could Fusion be the best hybrid?

Simple. Fusion drives better. A car is, after all, a driving machine. Brownie points for saving somewhat more fuel or offering a cargo-friendly hatchback, but driving feel is most important.

And there, Fusion is without equal among hybrids.

Here's a look:

•The car. A slick machine, regardless of powerplant. Smooth looks. Good manners. Adequate space. Comfortable accommodations. Above-average ambience.

Ford launched Fusion as a gasoline-only car in 2005 as a 2006 model.

It's getting a midcycle update for 2010, including a hybrid version for the first time, which will begin arriving at dealers mid-March.

The hood has a wide, demi-dome bulge, and the grille and rump are tweaked a bit.

The grille now looks as if it was done that way on purpose.

A commendable change: The turning circle is 2 feet narrower. No more back-and-forth getting into or out of a tight parking spot at the shopping mall. The change makes the car feel more nimble overall, not just when docking in a narrow slot.

•Hybrid system. The basic four-cylinder gasoline engine is a 2.5-liter, up from a 2.3-liter in previous Fusions. A little more oomph is the welcome result. The aural signature could be better — it comes down on the coarse side when spurred hard — but isn't a deal-breaker. The electric motor delivers more crank than you get from the gas engines in most small cars.

And the miracle is how Ford blends the two. There was no — none, nada, zip — vibration or shimmying in the test car when the gasoline kicked in to help the electric. No other hybrid — not even that $107,000 Lexus — can make that claim 100% of the time.

Fusion's main rivals, Camry and Nissan Altima hybrids, shake a lot when their gasoline engines join the party, Altima especially.

And no, it's not worth accepting the lack of refinement as a price for saving fuel. It'll make you bitter and crazy after a while, wincing in advance knowing that shudder is due any second.

One Ford trick: using the engine's electronic controls to halt the gasoline engine just at the point in the crankshaft rotation where a cylinder is ready to fire again.

There was a distant shudder when the Fusion's gasoline engine restarted after stopping at a red light, as all hybrids do to save fuel. But it was milder than in any other hybrid tested, so minor as to be inconsequential.

The other great thing about the Fusion hybrid is information delivery. You can pick how much hybrid-related data you want on the instrument panel. Regardless of how much you ask for, Fusion delivers it informatively, no scolding or overwhelming you, as other hybrids do.

Yes, there's the "atta way" pictograph of leaves growing into a wreath if you drive just so. But you can shut that off.

• Mileage. Mediocre for a hybrid in the test, but the mileage numbers were continuing to climb even as the test ended. And the car registered 40-plus miles per gallon in a couple of short trips that usually return crummy, not outstanding, mileage.

Best guess: Moderate, but not mileage-obsessed, drivers could get 35 mpg or so in suburban settings. Not the 41 government rating, but impressive for a 3,720-pound midsizer.

Fusion's city mileage rating is better than Camry's 33 mpg, but does it get more in real life? Probably depends more on the driver than the car.

Even if the Fusion gets lower real-world results, it's still much smoother and a whole lot nicer to drive.

More about the 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid

What? Gasoline-electric hybrid version of midsize, four-door, front-drive Fusion that's been updated for 2010 model year. Ford's Mercury brand sells the nearly identical Milan.

When? Hybrid and gasoline versions begin arriving at dealers in March.

Where? Made at Hermosillo, Mexico.

Why? Pirate some sales from Toyota's Camry hybrid. And burnish Ford's "green" credentials.

How much? Starts at $27,995 ($3,295 more than most similar gas model). With all factory options: $32,435. Midlevel test car: $29,590 (no leather or navigation system). Gasoline model starts at $19,995.

How many? About 20,000 a year, including a few Milans; more if Mikey likes it.

How powerful? Modestly — punch not being the key issue in a hybrid: 2.5-liter gasoline engine rated 156 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 136 pounds-feet of torque at 2,250 rpm. Electric motor: 106 hp at 6,500 rpm, 166 lbs.-ft. the moment it begins to turn (an appealing attribute of electric motors). Ford says net combined hp is 191, but declines (like most hybrid makers) to specify net combined torque.

Continuously variable automatic transmission blends power from the gas, electric powerplants.

How fancy? Lots standard, including expected bags, belts, stability and traction controls and power accessories, plus the unexpected: Free six-month satellite radio service (Sirius), 110-volt outlet, six-CD stereo (instead of the typical single setup), dual-zone climate control, auto on-off headlights, auto-dimming mirror, backup alarm. In other words, you actually could abide the base Fusion hybrid.

How big? On the small end of the midsize scale. Fractionally bigger outside than Toyota Camry hybrid, slightly smaller inside, but has a bigger trunk.

Fusion hybrid is 190.6 inches long, 72.2 in. wide, 56.9 in. tall on a 107.4-in. wheelbase.

Passenger space is listed as 99.8 cubic feet, trunk as 11.8 cu. ft. Weight listed as 3,720 lbs. Turning diameter is 37.5 ft.

How thirsty? Rated 41 miles per gallon in town, 36 on the highway, 39 in combined driving.

Test car trip computer showed 27.2 mpg (but was continuing to climb when test period ended) in 300 miles of suburban driving. Registered a remarkable 41.4 mpg in one 5.1-mile suburban trip, 44 mpg in a 3.1-mile hop, driven normally, no nursing.

Tank holds 17 gallons. Regular (87 octane) gasoline is specified.

Overall: Best hybrid.