At the risk of sounding older and crankier than I feel, it can be hell trying to find a car with a unique identity anymore. As our four-wheeled friends have become more refined, they've also become more homogeneous. Especially when sampling mass-market sedans, the distinctions are often subtle to the point of solipsism, and a sense of automotive deja vu is almost inescapable. Which is why there's a surprisingly warm place in my heart for hybrids: they may not be fun or even practical in the traditional senses, but they are undeniably different. Unless, of course, they aren't.
Like other hybrids, the Fusion has a profound effect on the driver that can only be properly compared to a personalized regimen of mood stabilizers, anti-anxiety pills and attention-deficit medication. Leaving town through Friday rush hour congestion would normally be a cut-and-thrust exercise for me, an id-tickling campaign of maximum effort leading only to minor advantages in speed and lane placement. That's just how I roll. But despite believing deeply that traffic is a battle to be fought, I found the Fusion guiding me towards a center lane. There, the Fusion settled into a sedate, nay, a mature pace. I found myself focusing on the battery levels, indicated mpg, and accelerator level. Sure, the point of a hybrid is to be driven efficiently, but there's more to it than that. Like any good psychotropic cocktail, the Fusion Hybrid leaves you wondering what happened to your old personality, and why the new one can't stop fixating on something as relentlessly prosaic as fuel efficiency.
Which is not to say that the Fusion's hybrid powertrain can't be used for less socially harmonious pursuits. Leaving the traffic behind and heading into Oregon's coast range, the road begins to wind and the commuter daze fades somewhat. After soft-shoeing the gas accelerator for miles, a savage jab at the throttle feels like a satisfyingly guilty pleasure. There's a brief pause while the eCVT transmission process the right foot's environmentally irresponsible request before the sound of burning hydrocarbons heralds a noticeable surge of power. The drivetrain transitions are surprisingly smooth, and progress down the road is pleasantly satisfying (0-60 in about 8.5 seconds).
The Fusion's respectable poke and planted feel might almost make you look forward to the really curvy bits of road. And it keeps feeling poised and capable until the moment that you start to turn the wheel, and all you can feel is 3,800 pounds pulling you wide. A dab on on the regenerative brakes brings the nose into line, but by then the promise of any kind of fun has passed. Adding to the questionable at-speed handling is the (repeat after me) numb, overboosted power steering. Vague on-center, the helm goes completely numb in sweeping curves that might otherwise be worth a redeeming giggle. And though body roll is quite well-contained, mid-sweeper bumps are exaggerated by the oversensitive yet uncommunicative wheel, requiring awkward mid-corner correction.
But the reality is that nobody buys a hybrid based on winding mountain road performance. Besides, there's nothing terrifying or dangerous about the Fusion Hybrid's handling dynamics, it simply never feels like mucking about. Luckily, the brief attempt at traditional car fun has helped shed some light on the keys to the Fusion's hybrid hypnosis. One of the Fusion's party tricks is its ability to run on electric power alone up to 47 mph, nearly twice the speed where its foreign competitors switch to a gas-electric mix. Unfortunately, realizing this advantage requires the combination of a full battery, compliant traffic and right-foot reflexes of Swiss watch precision.
The Fusion's other unique offering to the hybrid repertoire is the control panel's brightly-colored LCD display, which turns humdrum commutes into an eco-themed video game. In the Empower display setting, the right edge of the gauge screen is occupied by a kind of leafy digital vine which grows as you drive more efficiently. In concert with a power-demand gauge, this tritely metaphorical aide lends a weird glamor to light-footed driving. Though watching your botanical nanny shrivel under unrelenting acceleration adds a certain amount of palate-cleansing schadenfreude to the hybrid experience, the thrills never last and you always end up settling back into a quasi-hypermiling driving style. If ever there were a way to keep the Playstation generation from living out Gran Turismo fantasies on public roads, this is it.
Unfortunately, as it is with so many other instances of 21st Century life, the video game is better than reality. Though the Fusion Hybrid is rated at 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, our tester averaged 35.5 mpg over 600 miles of mixed driving. Sure, the majority of our testing was outside of stop-start urban traffic, but most of it was also driven with efficiency in mind (and a little research shows that we weren't the only testers to struggle to replicate the Fusion's EPA numbers in the real world). Overall, that's not much better than what you might expect from a Fusion S, which starts under $20,000 compared to our stripper Hybrid's $27,270 MSRP. Which is a far more reasonable price point for such Fusion features as the cheesily chromed-out grille, and an interior that comes in any style you like as long as it's at least 80 percent leather-grained, semi-soft black plastic.
Ultimately then, the Fusion Hybrid is a difficult car to recommend. A carefully-driven four-pot Fusion will come close to the Hybrid's real-world efficiency numbers for less money, and offering more potential for old-school driving fun. Unless of course your commute is a traffic-ridden hell that involves more sitting than actual driving. Or unless money is no object and you want to show your support for the environment, a US company and the workers of Saltillo, Mexico, all at the same time.
For more rational commuters, a Prius offers more efficiency at a lower price, with less rear-seat room as the only relevant drawback. Oh, and one more thing: though the Fusion's higher EV speed and engaging display insidiously sucks you into the hybrid lifestyle (aka life in the slow lane), once you wrestle your eyes away from the in-dash game the spell is broken and you're left driving slowly in a cheap, heavy car. If Ford hopes to win more converts to the hybrid mystique, it will need to offer its otherwise competent drivetrain in a package that wears its uniqueness with pride. Aren't modern cars homogeneous enough as is?