SANTA MONICA, CA – When Ford took the wraps off the ’13 Fusion at the Detroit auto show in January, the audience clearly was wowed.

It’s not often an auto maker so dramatically reworks one of its top-selling vehicles, but that’s exactly what Ford has done, abandoning the outgoing model’s run-of-the-mill styling for new sheet metal that has elicited more than one comparison to exotic sports-car maker Aston Martin.

The new Fusion looks just as good here under the bright California sun for our media test drive as it did bathed in the glaring lights of the show.

The midsize-sedan segment in which the Fusion resides is one of the largest in the U.S., and it’s growing. Deliveries across the category, which includes the top-selling Toyota Camry, were up 25.6% through October to 2,572,777 units, according to WardsAuto data.

The segment is full of sedans that are competent daily drivers, yet fail to inspire. Ford takes a gamble with the Fusion in an effort to stand out and drive sales.

From the car’s slit-like headlamps to the aggressive curves on the hood that continue through the body sides, the ’13 Fusion represents Ford’s attempt to redefine a segment not known for breakthrough styling.

On our drive here, the Fusion, with its gaping grille and sleek profile, draws the attention of more than a few jaded Californians used to streets jammed with high-end vehicles.

That bodes well for Ford and its styling direction, but the Fusion’s driving characteristics and best-in-class fuel economy likely will resonate more with potential buyers.

Ford makes several Fusion derivatives available for testing, including a 1.6L direct-injected turbocharged EcoBoost 4-cyl. model with a 6-speed manual transmission and a 2.0L EcoBoost I-4 with a 6-speed automatic.

The auto maker also offers brief stints in the Fusion hybrid, which is powered by a 2.0L Atkinson-cycle 4-cyl. gas engine and all-new lithium-ion batteries that save weight and generate more power than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in the last-generation model.

The auto maker says its fourth-generation hybrid powertrain delivers best-in-class fuel economy of 47 mpg (5.0 L/100 km) combined city/highway and can achieve a 62 mph (99 km/h) maximum speed in electric-only power, up from 47 mph (75 km/h) in the outgoing model.

Our favorite Fusion powertrain, by a long shot, is the 1.6L EcoBoost with the manual transmission. The engine, producing 178 hp and 184 lb.-ft. (249 Nm) of torque, is a good fit for the Fusion. In that configuration, the sedan weighs in at 3,333 lbs. (1,512 kg).

The 1.6L Fusion feels lighter on its feet than the 2.0L, which comes available with all-wheel drive. The battery pack in the hybrid adds 348 lbs. (158 km) to the curb weight.

The electric-power-assisted steering is spot-on, providing good road feedback and none of the vagueness often associated with EPAS technology.

Our test drive takes us into the canyons just outside of Santa Monica, where the Fusion provides a sense of confidence in the tightest of turns, a trait few cars in the crowded segment possess. It easily surpasses the handling of the outgoing Fusion and promises to be a dynamic benchmark for its class.

A beefier steering wheel would be nice, however. The skinny wheel in the Fusion just doesn’t fit the sporty nature of the car.

The suspension – independent MacPherson struts up front and a multilink setup in the rear – is a bit on the soft side, but likely will appeal to a wider range of consumers than would a stiffer configuration.

Acceleration off the line is fairly brisk, but not overly impressive. Launching from a dead stop is more rewarding with the 6-speed manual that, despite having somewhat long throws, is one of the better stickshifts Ford has offered in a long time.  

Including a manual option at all is surprising. Most midsize sedans come only with automatic gearboxes, and even Ford admits it doesn’t expect many consumers to opt for the manual.

The optional 6-speed automatic detracts from the car’s attributes, producing sluggish and abrupt launches.

Over the course of more than 100 miles (161 km) of both freeway cruising and aggressive driving, the 1.6L EcoBoost turns in a respectable 27.8 mpg (8.4 L/100 km) average.

The 1.6L model has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 25/37 mpg (9.4-6.3 L/100 km) city/highway. In comparison, the ’12 Toyota Camry equipped with a 2.5L I-4 achieves 25/35 mpg (9.4-6.7 L/100 km).

Seat time in the 2.0L is limited, but for those looking for more power it’s the clear choice. Rated at 240 hp and 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) of torque, the Fusion pulls away from a dead stop with much more authority than the 1.6L, but we only achieve 23.3 mpg (10.0 L/100 km) on average. The car’s extra weight is noticeable and detracts from its handling.

A base model 2.5L naturally aspirated I-4, producing 175 hp and 175 lb.-ft. (237 Nm) of torque, also is offered, but Ford does not make one available for testing.

The new Fusion’s interior is well-crafted, with much attention given to quality, but it could use more color and styling accents. Large swaths of uninterrupted black plastic on the dash, seats and doors do the car no favors.  

The driver’s seat is comfortable, and all controls easily are within reach. There is plenty of legroom in the rear seats, a must for the segment.

The MyFord Touch infotainment system is intuitive to use, with basic functions – audio, navigation, climate control and phone – located in the four corners of the screen, though it doesn’t react instantly when a selection is made on the touchscreen. Still, it is a better infotainment option than many auto makers offer, despite being roundly criticized as cumbersome and complicated.

With a starting price of $22,495, multiple powertrain options, dramatic styling and a soon-to-be-released plug-in hybrid, Ford finally has a contender to dethrone the dependable yet mundane Camry.

bpope@wardsauto.com

'13 Ford Fusion
Vehicle type Four-door, 5-passenger midsize sedan
Engine 1.6L direct-injected turbocharged DOHC inline 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 178 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Torque 184 lb.-ft. (249 Nm) @ 2,500 rpm
Bore x stroke (ins.) 3.11 x 3.20
Compression ratio 10.1:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 112.2 ins. (284.9 cm)
Overall length 191.7 ins. (486.9 cm)
Overall width 72.9 ins. (185.1 cm)
Overall height 58.1 ins. (147.5 cm)
Curb weight 3,333 lbs. (1,512 kg)
Base price $22,495
Fuel economy 25/37 mpg (9.4-6.3 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Kia Optima
Pros Cons
Well-crafted interior Too much black
Handles well Skinny steering wheel
Terrific manual transmission Ho-hum automatic transmission