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Test Drive: Ford Fusion hybrid is more fun than Chevrolet Volt

8:57 PM, Apr 13, 2013   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) -- Ford added a plug-in hybrid to its Fusion midsize sedan lineup, and it really does go about 21 miles on the battery before you need the gasoline engine.

Chevrolet Volt plug-in goes 38 miles before the battery needs help, so Energi (Ford's designation for plug-in hybrids) isn't a record-setter. But it's roomier and more comfortable than Volt, and more fun to drive.

And it has Fusion's dramatic styling, which many (including Test Drive) think looks terrific.

Fusion Energi has two missions: to be a good car and to cut fuel use and the attendant costs. Before we comb through those, let's be sure we're all on the same page:

A hybrid has a gasoline engine and an electric motor, tied together via the transmission. That saves fuel because the gas engine runs less often, letting the electric do some of the work of propelling the car. There's no plug-in feature. The batteries for the electric motor are recharged when the car slows and stops (called regenerative braking) and by the gas engine running a generator, as needed. A hybrid can't go far on battery-power only - a mile, maybe three - because the battery pack isn't big.

A plug-in hybrid, such as Fusion Energi, has a much bigger battery pack, which dramatically increases weight, cost and electric-only range. Plug-ins, also called PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles), can be plugged into a household outlet to recharge their batteries, rather than relying only on regenerative braking and the gas engine.

The PHEV universe is small. In addition to the Fusion Energi and the Chevy Volt, the government recognizes the Ford C-Max Energi, the Toyota Prius PHEV, and the Fisker Karma, currently out of production.

Government-listed ranges when the cars are running solely on battery power run from 11 miles for the Prius, 21 miles for the Fords, to 34 for the Fisker and 38 for the Chevy.

PHEVs coming within about a year, according to the government: Honda Accord (on sale in California and New York since Jan. 15, nationwide this fall); Mitsubishi Outlander; Cadillac ELR; and Audi A3 e-tron.

Fusion Energi is special and priced at $40,000, more or less (mostly more). The bigger battery pack is mainly why. Energi models are more lavishly equipped than corresponding normal hybrids, Ford notes.

As a car, Fusion Energi succeeds well, but is hardly perfect. Driving in electric-only mode works fine in urban and suburban driving. Electrics deliver all their power instantly, so the car squirts away from stoplights just fine. It's suitable for steady-state highway cruising.

But electrics have little left to give once the car is underway, so flooring the throttle at, say, 30 mph results in a very sluggish increase in velocity. No diving and dancing through traffic, fast merging, quick passing.

In "auto" mode, Energi blends the gas and electric power like a regular hybrid. That provides plenty of acceleration for most situations. The gas engine even has a husky growl that some ears will find pleasing.

The car is hundreds of pounds heavier than others of its size, and that shows up over rippled asphalt, where Fusion Energi seems to bound a bit, as if the suspension is working hard to control two tons of car.

Cornering, on the other hand, is normal. The reluctant feel of an overweight machine is diminished, and Energi handles the "S" turns as well as an ordinary sedan.

The test car was a Titanium high-end version, and the interior was suitably sumptuous. Exceptional leather upholstery pleasing to the eye and the tush; crisp, tasteful dashboard and interior layout and trim. Plenty of rear leg room in the two outboard seats, but the middle slot's compromised by the center tunnel.

The Ford system of controls remains too awkward, but was manageable and didn't act up. It was, however, hard of hearing when the driver tried to give voice commands with the climate control fan roaring, or windows down. Not unusual, but shouldn't we be beyond that by now?

The high-end car has MyFordMobile. It lets your smart phone monitor the battery charge, find public recharging stations, plan trips using electric-only mode and more.

You might never need the gas engine in normal use. Ford says 20 miles is an average commute, so by that math, you could go one way entirely on the 21-mile battery range, plug in at work, and go home on battery only. Recharging after that battery-draining drive takes several hours and about $1 worth of electricity. In a gasoline car, you might spend $3 on fuel for the same distance.

But if you run Energi until the battery's drained, then let it switch to the gas-electric mode, mpg will be in the 30s or 40s. That's lower than a non-Energi Fusion hybrid, which is up to $11,400 cheaper but has virtually no ability to run on battery only.

Test Drive believes alternative power vehicles should look and drive like normal cars to broaden their appeal beyond fans. Fusion Energi passes that test with a high grade.

DETAILS

What? Plug-in hybrid version of the midsize, four-door, front-drive, five-passenger Fusion sedan. Energi is Ford's designation for plug-in hybrids; there's an Energi version of Ford's C-Max.

Plug-in hybrids have bigger batteries than other hybrids. Fusion Energi can run 21 miles on battery only before the gasoline engine has to start and provide power. Regular hybrid, about one mile battery-only.

When? On sale since late February.

Where? Made at Hermosillo, Mexico.

How much? SE starts at $39,475 including $795 shipping. Titanium, $40,895. Buyers qualify for up to $3,750 federal income tax credit, Ford says.

Compared with regular Fusion SE hybrid and Titanium hybrid, Energi prices are about $11,400 and $8,000 higher, respectively. Ford says Energi's much bigger battery is much more expensive, and the Energi versions have considerably more standard features.

What makes it go? 2-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and electric motor, together rated a combined 188 horsepower. Total combined torque rating not given. Gas engine is 129 pounds-feet at 4,000 rpm. Powertrain linked to CVT (continuously variable-ratio automatic transmission).

How big? Typical midsize (think Camry, Accord, Malibu); same as other Fusions but much smaller trunk because of bigger battery pack. Fusion Energi is 191.8 inches long, 72.9 in. wide, 58 in. tall on a 112.2-in. wheelbase.

The bigger battery boosts weight to 3,913 lbs., which is 298 lbs. more than non-plug-in hybrid and as much as 492 lbs. more than gasoline models.

Trunk space is 8.8 cubic feet, down from 12 cu. ft. in regular hybrid.

How thirsty? Rated 100 miles-per-gallon-equivalent in combined city/highway driving using electric-only mode. That means it consumes the same amount of energy as a gasoline car that could get 100 mpg. To fully charge it five times, as necessary to go 100 miles on battery only, is about $3.90 at the U.S. average price for electricity.

In normal hybrid mode, when the car switches between gas and electric power as conditions dictate, the rating is 44 mpg in the city, 41 highway, 43 in city/highway mix.

Test car, a Titanium model that was fully recharged every night, showed 140 mpg-e when used entirely as an electric car, and 33.8 mpg operated as a normal hybrid.

Burns regular, holds 13 gallons.

Overall: Good-looking, pleasant-driving - but expensive - way to slice gasoline use.

James R. Healey, USA TODAY

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