2010 Ford Fusion SE 6MT

There ain't nothing stock about a stock car. Nowadays, there ain't nothing standard about a standard transmission. How long has it been since you've heard that quaint sobriquet for a clutch-and-stick setup? More than ninety percent of new cars sold in the United States are self-shifters. Our oh-so-superior friends in Europe and Japan aren't as far behind in the trend towards PRNDL hegemony as they would have us believe. Combine the weight of marketplace preference with the increasing difficulty involved in making a stick-shift meet emissions regulations, and it becomes easy to understand why manufacturers are making automatic transmissions the only choice for everything besides specialty cars. A clutch pedal is perilously close to becoming an actual luxury item in today's market. Does that turn this twenty-two-grand base-ish Fusion into a luxury car? Hell no.

Nor is the Fusion a sports car, or even a sporting one. The two-and-a-half-liter Duratec four makes 175 horsepower. That's not nearly enough to propel the relatively porky Fusion with anything approaching vigor. (Although it would certainly keep up with an old five-cylinder Acura Vigor, if you can find one that hasn't rusted into irrelevance.) Some of the Fusion's class-inappropriate weight must consist of heavy Dynamat, because the engine note is virtually inaudible inside the cabin. Shift by the tach or you will meet the rev limiter. Trust me. The suspension tuning has been chosen for peace and quiet, not sturm und drang. It's a remarkable freeway cruiser, particularly at the price, but it's no Autobahn terror.

The Fusion SE is supplied with an interior of somewhat less tactile delight than that provided in the Sport model, but this is also way Honda and Toyota do things nowadays. Compared to a base Camry or Accord, this Fusion is more than acceptable. If there's an occasional obvious cost-clipping in the plastics, there's also a full SYNC system to balance the books.

This particular type of automobile-a relatively bland, low-equipment, manual-transmission four-cylinder sedan-has been a Honda, Toyota, and Nissan staple for a long time. In fact, the Ford is priced and equipped right on top of the Camry LE six-speed 2.5L, although I'd be surprised if there are more than ten new six-speed Camrys for sale in the entire country at the moment. Could it possibly make sense to buy the Fusion?

The Ford's actual transaction price is certain to be a bit lower, although Toyota's no longer slacking with the rebates. The Camry confers more respectability in the average suburban neighborhood nowadays, and it's likely to be worth a bit more in five or ten years. Most Camrys are built in Kentucky, if you're one of the folks who would prefer to buy an American-made automobile. There's more room to be had in the Camry, and the famous Toyota reliability comes standard.

In this case, however, the not-so-famous Ford reliability is likely to carry the day in the long term. Consumer Reports is giving the Fusion the nod over the Camry, and it's become apparent that recent Toyotas aren't built as well as they used to be. Toyota doesn't offer anything to match SYNC's feature set. The Ford's a more stirring drive, although this is a relative proposition. I personally find the Camry to be an utterly unforgiveable offense against aesthetics, proportion, and design, but it's possible that somebody, somewhere, finds Toyota's deformed-humpback styling compelling. That person is probably legally blind, but legally blind people buy plenty of cars. For proof of this assertion, Google first-generation Santa Fe.

The more time I spent behind the wheel of this humble four-cylinder Ford, the more I liked it. As a way to get four people somewhere at relatively low cost and with reasonable comfort, the Fusion SE takes some beating. This is the car that the Contour should have been back in 1995, but the Euro-fanboys and the handling fanatics were running Ford at the time. As a result, the so-called American Mondeo was exactly that: a cramped, featureless sedan that happened to suck-up the road like a front-wheel-drive 3-Series. No Accord or Camry could match the Contour for driving dynamics, and precisely nobody cared.

My insiders at Ford say that there's a sported-up four-cylinder Fusion on the way, perhaps combining this drivetrain with the taut, big-wheeled setup found on the Sport. I cannot imagine that car selling in anything other than curiosity numbers. In fact, I cannot imagine this car selling in anything other than curiosity numbers. It doesn't matter. Ford's decision to provide this model is a statement of confidence. For the first time in a long time, there's a domestic manufacturer willing to face the Camcords on an equal footing.

Some time ago, I asked TTAC's B&B how this car should be rated: according to my preferences as a reviewer, or according to the Fusion's position in the marketplace. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of the latter. So, while I feel compelled to note that I would rather have a lime-green Porsche GT2 than this anonymous silver sedan, when I put it heads-up against the competition, it's four stars, no sweat.