The most mainstream hybrid ever built
by: JAIME VALDEZ, With the Fusion hybrid Ford has reinvented its traditional family sedan has a stylish, good handling fuel-sipper.

When a car is named Car of the Year, you expect to be dazzled with its styling and overwhelmed with its performance.

When it wins two such awards, you expect to be twice as impressed.

The 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid is such a winner. It was named North American Car of the Year at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show and 2010 Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine.

It was also named Most Environmentally Progressive Automobile of the year at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

But if you're expecting the Fusion Hybrid to blow your mind with its looks and dynamics, forget it. The Fusion Hybrid did not win those awards because it is the most exotic car of the year. It won those awards because it is the most tradition-looking and convention-driving hybrid ever made - which makes it the most likely hybrid to be considered by people who have never bought one before.

Oh, and by the way, it is also a well-made and roomy five-person sedan.

Until now, hybrids have either been intentionally strange looking or nothing special to drive. Both the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight are wedge-shaped with odd dashes and shifters. The hybrid versions of the Honda Civic, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry get better mileage than their gasoline counterparts, but they aren't much fun.

In contrast, the new Fusion Hybrid looks and performs like a traditional Ford family car - quiet, comfortable, roomy and powerful enough that freeway passing is never a concern.

Did we say it got around 32 miles per gallon during a week of around town and freeway driving - over 35 miles per gallon on some trips? That was achieved by mating a 2.5-liter four cylinder to an electric motor that provides all the power at low speeds and boosts the output when more oomph is needed. Like all hybrids, no noise or vibrations come from under the hood when it first starts and comes to a complete start. The gasoline engine only shudders slightly when it first starts and never when shifting between it and the electric motor.The Electronically-Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (E-CVT) in our car was smooth and responsive under all conditions.

Automotive test vehicles are normally loaded up with every available option under the sun. In contrast, our test Fusion Hybrid was a base model with no options except a dual zone climate control system. This gave us an opportunity to concentrate on the essential character of the car without being distracted by luxury features or high-tech gizmos.

One more thing, the Fusion Hybrid handles well, has tight steering and enough power - a combined 191 horsepower - to encourage spirited driving, something you can't say about most fuel-efficient cars these days.

Like the Prius and Insight, the Fusion Hybrid has an electronic dash that's heavy on graphics that show such things as when the batteries are recharging. One optional setting shows when you're driving economically by "growing" leaves. The better your mileage, the more leaves you earn. Although it sounds silly, we found ourselves frequently trying to grow as many leaves as possible. Ford should consider growing puppies or kitties to encourage even better mileage.

At the end of the week, we had to say the awards were well-considered. The Fusion would be a good car, even if it wasn't a hybrid. In fact, Motor Trend gave its award to the entire Fusion line, which starts with a non-hybrid four-cylinder version and includes a sport model with a 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic transmission. Options include such premium features as a leather interior, an upgraded stereo and a navigation system. An all-wheel-drive system is also available.

But we did not suffer in our stripped-down model. The eco-friendly cloth seats were comfortable and supportive, the leather-wrapped steering wheel was just the right size and base stereo sounded great. Standard features also include Sirius Satellite Radio and Sync voice activated controls.

Which is a good deal for a base price of just $27,270, including the hybrid system. In fact, to get this balance of performance and economy in a hybrid sedan, you have to consider the new Lexus HS 250h, which starts at around $35,000.

When it comes to exterior styling, the Fusion is clean but not very distinctive. The large front grill and air dam is aggressive, but the sides and rear end are generic. The sport version features distinctive side body moldings and a trunk-mounted wing that should be standard on all models.

Ford deserves another honor for the 2010 Fusion Hybrid - a Company of the Year award for proving that American car manufacturers can produce well-made, fuel-efficient cars that people want to buy without declaring bankruptcy and borrowing millions of dollars from the federal government to stay in business. Henry would be proud.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Fusion Hybrid

• Manufacturer: Ford.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel- and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door, five passenger car.

• Engines: 2.5-liter inline-4 (175 hp, 136 lb-ft); 2.5-liter inline-4 mated to 106 hp, 166 lb-ft AC permanent-magnet electric motor (combined 191 hp - as tested); 3.0-liter V6 (240 hp); 3.5-liter V6 (263 hp).

• Transmissions: Elecronically-Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECTV - as tested); six-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 17/24 (awd, V6); 41/36 (hybrid - as tested)

• Price: Beginning at approximately $19,270 ($27,270 - as tested).

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