Friday, February 7, 2014

Automobile Review – 2014 Ford Fusion

I had to leave my car (a 2005 Nissan Altima SE) in the dealer for a couple of days, and I got a Hertz rental. As it happened, the only car they had left was one I’d been drooling over visually for a few months, the 2014 Ford Fusion. Having lived with the car for two days, I felt compelled to write about it. I’ll touch on several key areas of the car that made impressions on me.

From many angles, the Fusion is a sheer delight to the eyes. In fact, from the B-pillar forward, I think it is the most beautiful car that has ever emerged from the Ford Motor Company. The nose cap has rakish lines that suggest some of the better styling elements of Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Volvo. It is a tidy, streamlined, and mildly aggressive look. The front ¾ view of this car is magnificent.

From the side, it is very pleasing as well; but the beltline is too high for my taste. This is not only an aesthetic issue, it has a functional drawback too; in that it cuts down on glass area, affecting downward visibility and imparting a feeling like you’re sitting in a high-walled bathtub.

The rear quarter is pleasant enough, but the taillights are too small and “squinty”; throwing the proportions off a little. The style of the lights and the sculpting of the sheetmetal do not flow as much as they would if the lights were just scaled up a bit. The styled exhaust tips integrated into the rear bumper are excellent though.

Some of these visual gripes are exacerbated by the stark white color of my test model. I have seen the car in darker colors, and the deficiencies are greatly muted. It is lovely in black and Sterling Grey and the orangey “Sunset” color.

The other visual element that bothers me is that the car looks under-tired. The high beltline and general lack of secondary creases and accent lines on the sides emphasizes the relatively smallish wheels and tires. A tasteful aftermarket “plus-one” treatment would help the overall balance.

Fit and finish was very good; typical of modern Detroit iron, but still not up to par with the more fastidious Germans and Japanese.  The paint is of high quality, with a deep gloss and sheen.

The cockpit of the new Fusion is swoopy, dynamic, and thoroughly modern. You nestle into exceptionally comfortable front buckets - supportive in all the right areas. However, their excellent shape is offset a little by thin and relatively unyielding padding; I felt like a long trip in this car might elicit some butt fatigue. The dashboard is sensible and logical; with very readable gauges and indicators. I found the typography to be exceptionally readable and pleasant to look at. 

On the downside, gadzooks, buttons, buttons EVERYWHERE!!! The steering wheel alone had a staggering 23 buttons on it! Worse, they all look and feel pretty much the same so forget feeling your way around. The labeling and menu systems are somewhat counterintuitive; and I could not get the car to pair with my iPhone 5s under any conditions, though the profiles for three other renters’ iPhones were in there. Other controls were counterintuitive as well, especially the headlight stalk.  The stereo, while flexible with Sirius and radio and aux inputs, sounded like garbage.  The steering wheel was fat, contoured, and had a nice heft to the grip. Only the 23 buttons (!) marred this beauty.

In one respect, the futuristic aesthetics got in the way. The center dash pod was designed so it rakes back to the console between the seats; but instead of an enclosed box for storage in the middle, they used an opening between the support struts that you reached WAYYYY through to access a small shelf.  Truly abysmal design.

The base engine is Ford’s venerable Duratec 2.5 liter 4 cylinder, making 175HP at 6000RPM and 175ft-lbs of torque at a lofty 4500RPM. Sounds like a lot (OK, no it doesn’t but it should be reasonable), but saddled with the Fusion’s 3400lb curb weight, and mated to a very confused 6-speed automatic transmission it just wasn’t enough. Anemic and wheezy, it revved only under great protest, and the high torque peak means that you have to rev it a lot to get any sort of momentum. To make matters worse, the transmission hinders you at every turn. It is very slow to respond, but has a very loose torque converter, so throttle response is non-linear and jerky. The driveline bucks in protest when you try to get it to cooperate with your right foot; even the gentlest routine launch from a stoplight felt, well, unsophisticated. Very crude and ungainly. Worse still was fuel economy. Driving my commute to work, which is 10.1 miles, and has six stop signs and 17 red lights, my Altima with a 250hp 3.5L V6 gets 18.3mpg on average. The Fusion, with its allegedly more economical 4-pot, driving the same route with the same general levels of acceleration, got just 18.6mpg over the 2 days and approximately 65 miles I drove it. You have to make the engine work a lot harder than you expect just to stay smoothly with traffic; and lugging that hefty chassis around doesn’t help fuel consumption any.

The Focus was quiet and rode comfortably. Not much tire noise made it through to the passenger cabin. The steering, however, was the most disturbing aspect of the whole car. There is a truly astonishing amount of caster effect. Caster is the angle that the pivot line of the steering axis differs from vertical. Cars have caster dialed into the suspension to provide straight line stability. The Focus has what I felt was an excessive amount. The net effect is twofold:

On the positive, it tracked like a freight train; inline stability is exceptional. The downside is that the car initially resists changing direction. On-center steering effort is modest, but builds quickly and not linearly through the first 180 degrees of steering lock in both directions. It also violently snaps back to center. It was very disconcerting.  Once you do muscle it into a corner, it tracks flat and smooth though, no real misbehavior. It’s not “tossable” in any way, but it’s fairly neutral. Ford envisions the Fusion as a “driver’s car”, and they’ve taken some steps to provide some driving enjoyment, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Well, the list starts with the engine. They have higher powered engines, including a turbocharged 4 that makes 250HP and 231ft-lbs of torque (at a ridiculous 5500RPM), but no V6. This car desperately needs “more torques”.  It also needs a more refined steering geometry, a MUCH better radio, a simplification of the main dash, and little more padding in the front seats.

Other than that, I kinda liked it, oddly enough. 

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