Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

DEARBORN, MI – The ’10 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan originally were scheduled for a minor freshening.

But in an aggressive bid to challenge the competition in the crowded midsize-car segment, Ford Motor Co. performed complete makeovers on the cars, which debut this week at the 2008 Los Angeles auto show.

“It’s the second-largest U.S. segment, second only to small cars, at 2.1 million annually,” says J.D. Shanahan, chief nameplate engineer. Inherently, it represents a “huge opportunity” for growth, he adds.

Shanahan recalls the “pivotal moment” in the cars’ evolution.

“(I) was walking into a conference meeting with the senior leadership team thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to walk in and ask for way more money than the target.’ Why? Because we knew we needed to do it,” Shanahan tells Ward’s at a media preview here.

“If we’re really going to be in a leadership position, somebody to shoot for in the midsize segment, then we needed to leapfrog in a couple of areas.”

Shanahan’s team got the green light. Then the real work began.

Arguably, nobody had a tougher assignment than Darrel Behmer, chief designer. “It was to take a great look and make it better,” he says.

The result: both the Fusion and Milan get new front fascias for ’10, with the former getting a new “Powerdome” hood. And both cars benefit from lowered front ends, which suggest a wider, sportier look.

Meanwhile, the Fusion receives new headlamps, grille and a larger fog-lamp area.

Around back, the cars receive new tail lamps, deck lids and tailored rear fascias that, according to Ford, make for a more contemporary look.

New models also are added to the lineup, with both the Fusion and Milan receiving hybrid versions. Plus, the Fusion adds a Sport version.

For the Sport model, Behmer and his team borrowed the honeycomb grille from the Ford Mustang and added side skirts to the wheel wells to give it a more aggressive stance. It also received larger exhaust ports and a decklid spoiler in the rear.

Less design work was required for the hybrid versions, Behmer says, noting research showed “customers weren’t asking for a whole lot of differentiation” between the hybrid and the standard SE model.

“Attention to detail was really what we were after,” he adds, which addressed “every little thing, everything you touch.”

The Fusion receives a new instrument panel, which is finished with a soft upper and lower skin.

The Milan carries forward its 2-tone look on the interior, with satin-aluminum accents and a wood finish around the center stack.

Both models get new, more comfortable seats for ’10, which also provide better side support. The Fusion seats boast contrasting stitching and leather inserts, while the Milan seats feature a new perforation pattern.

Instrument clusters are redesigned more modern looking, and an optional ambient-lighting system illuminates the front and rear foot wells and front cupholders.

Under the hood, Ford adds a new 2.5L I-4 to the Fusion and Milan lineup that produces 175 hp, as well as an enhanced version of its 3.0L V-6. Also, for the first time, the auto maker offers a 3.5L V-6, which will power the Fusion Sport model.

The new I-4, borrowed from the ’09 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner cross/utility vehicles, is expected to better the Accord’s highway performance by at least 3 mpg (1.3 km/L) and exceed the Toyota Camry’s rating by 2 mpg (0.9 km/L), Ford says, noting final fuel-economy numbers have yet to be validated.

All engines will be paired with 6-speed automatic transmissions, which Ford says bolster fuel economy up to 10%. Other performance-enhancing technologies for the Fusion and Milan include variable cam timing and electric power steering.

Additionally, the 3.0L V-6 gets aggressive deceleration fuel shut-off, resulting in a 1% fuel-economy improvement, and SelectShift, which allows drivers to select gears manually.

The ’10 Fusion and Milan HEVs get an upgraded hybrid powertrain that allows drivers to travel at speeds up to 47 mph (76 km/h) in electric-only mode, and boasts a range of more than 700 miles (1,127 km) in city driving.

“Because our hybrid can run at a much higher speed in electric mode, you can do so much more in city-driving situations,” says Gil Portalatin, hybrid applications manager. “You can drive in your subdivision or mall parking lots without using a drop of gasoline.”

The HEVs utilize new nickel-metal-hydride battery cells in their power packs, which are lighter and can produce 20% more power than the pack used in the Escape and Mariner hybrids.

The battery pack was developed by Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd., while the system integration was handled by Delphi Corp. and Ford.

Despite having to go head-to-head with heavyweights such as the Camry and Accord, Ford is confident its new midsize sedans will be able to bolster market share and even pull in some conquest buyers, says Greg Scott, product marketing manager.

“We’ve got a big (marketing) campaign with a lot of aspects to it,” he says, declining to reveal details “But I think the car speaks for itself. It’s beautiful; it gets best-in-class fuel economy; and I think that’s going to drive a lot of customers into the vehicle.”

The ’10 Fusion and Milan are set to hit dealers in the spring. Pricing and fuel-economy ratings will be released closer to the launch date.

bpope@wardsauto.com