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.

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