If Ford Motor Co. can keep churning out vehicles such as the ’10 Fusion Hybrid sedan, it will go a long way toward silencing critics of the Detroit auto makers.

The Fusion Hybrid is more than just a timely product offering. It’s also a useful public-relations tool, as evidenced by the media coverage the auto maker received when the car earned an Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy rating of 41 mpg (5.7 L/100 km) in the city and 36 mpg (6.5 L/100 km) on the highway. That translates to 38.5 mpg (6.1 L/100 km) combined.

Those kinds of numbers demonstrate Detroit indeed can build viable products for today’s fuel-conscious environment. But they also prove challenging to duplicate during a recent test drive.

The best we can squeeze out of the Fusion Hybrid is a combined 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km).

In all fairness, our seat time came in the midst of a brutal Michigan winter cold snap. Running the heater at nearly full blast most of the time siphons power from the battery, causing the car to rely more often on its gasoline engine.

The weather also limits the speeds at which we are able to drive in all-electric mode. Ford says the Fusion Hybrid can travel up to 47 mph (76 km/h) on juice alone, significantly higher than most other hybrids on the road today.

However, we only are able to achieve about 30 mph (48 km/h) in all-electric mode. And that requires a feather-light touch on the accelerator. Pressing the pedal too hard immediately kick-starts the gas engine.

We blame the heater again.

Still, the Fusion Hybrid delivers pleasant surprises, as well. A good example is Ford’s nifty new display dubbed SmartGauge with EcoGuide, which provides real-time powertrain information to help drivers maximize fuel efficiency.

The new instrument cluster features an analog speedometer in the center, flanked by two full-color liquid-crystal display screens.

The screens can be reconfigured to display different levels of information, including fuel level, battery-charge status and average fuel economy. The screen on the right displays a graphic of leaves and vines that grow, or shrink, depending on how economically the vehicle is driven.

Although it may seem a bit gimmicky to some, the graphic is a clever way to enjoyably eke out better performance.

It’s difficult not to glance at the graphic, because it serves as an instantaneous report card. You can’t imagine the disappointment that sets in when the leaves fall off the vine.

For the Fusion Hybrid and its sibling, the Mercury Milan Hybrid, Ford improves on the powertrain used in the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner hybrid cross/utility vehicles. The Escape Hybrid won a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award for 2009.

The Fusion utilizes new nickel-metal-hydride “traction” battery cells in its packs, which are lighter and generate 20% more power than those used in the Escape and Mariner.

The Fusion battery packs are tucked neatly behind the rear seat to conserve valuable cabin room. Trunk space is only slightly compromised: 11.8 cu.-ft. (0.3 cu.-m) for the hybrid model vs. the 16.5 cu.-ft. (0.5 cu.-m) in the gas-powered Fusion.

The pack placement does not detract from the car’s handling. Having the extra weight in the middle of the car seems to help it “swivel” around corners, unlike hybrids with rear-mounted batteries that cause the back end to swing out a bit too easily.

The battery powers a 275-volt, permanent-magnet AC synchronous motor that produces 106 hp. The instant torque inherent to electric drivertrains affords an exhilarating experience in the Fusion Hybrid, as the rush of speed from a full stop is accompanied by an eerie silence from the ultra-quiet electric motor.

’10 Ford Fusion Hybrid
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 2.5L DOHC inline 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 156 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 136 lb.-ft (184 Nm) @ 2,250 rpm
Compression ratio 12.3:1
Electric motor 79 kW (106 hp) @ 6,500 rpm, 275-volt NiMH battery
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 107.4 ins. (273 cm)
Overall length 190.6 ins. (484 cm)
Overall width 72.2 ins. (183 cm)
Overall height 56.9 ins. (145 cm)
Curb weight 3,720 lbs. (1,687 kg)
Base price $27,270
Fuel economy 41/36 mpg (5.7/6.5 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Toyota Camry Hybrid, Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid
Pros Cons
Rated at 41 mpg in the city Unable able to top 33 mpg (7.0 L/100 km)
New slimmer battery pack Eats into trunk room
“Capable of” 47 mph in EV mode Achieved only 30 mph

The Fusion’s gas engine also receives an upgrade over previous iterations. The new 2.5L inline 4-cyl. mill produces 155 hp and 136 lb.-ft. (184 Nm) of peak torque and is mated to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission.

The gas engine is a good fit for this hybrid application – not too small to provide sufficient power and not too large to erode fuel economy.

Since the gas engine typically kicks in after reaching 30 mph (48 km/h) or so, it’s difficult to assess the level of low-end oomph. On the few occasions where conditions call for the gas engine to launch the car from a standstill, it does not disappoint, doing its job effortlessly.

The transition between gas and electric mode is surprisingly seamless. Much more so than other hybrids we’ve driven. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to tell when you are in gas mode without looking at the instrumentation, whereas some hybrids make the switch with a noticeable lurch.

Except for the futuristic-looking SmartGauge with EcoGuide, the Fusion Hybrid’s interior is unassuming; there’s nothing extraordinary screaming “I’m a hybrid!”

Although our tester has fabric seats, they are quite comfortable, with plenty of side support.

Instrumentation is well laid out, and most of the controls are fairly intuitive, although learning the ins and outs of SmartGauge with EcoGuide takes some time.

The cabin is remarkably quiet due to an acoustic windshield, thicker front-door glass than the previous generation Fusion, new hood insulators, sound deadening in the trunk and new interior headliner material.

For ’10, Ford spruces up the exterior of the Fusion, giving it a much sportier appearance than the outgoing model. A new “Powerdome” hood complements a lowered front end, which suggests a wider, squatter look.

New headlamps, grille and a larger fog-lamp area round out the front end, while in back, the car receives new taillamps, a restyled deck lid and tailored rear fascia.

Our tester stickers at $29,590, including a $725 destination and delivery charge. That’s a lot of money for a midsize sedan but about middle-of-the-pack for a hybrid. And when you add in the $3,400 available government tax credit, the Fusion Hybrid starts to look like quite the bargain.

Overall, the Fusion Hybrid is able to compete with, and often surpass, other hybrids in the market.

But its largest contribution may well be as a game-changer for Ford.

bpope@wardsauto.com