Ford Fusion Revamp Stylishly Steals the Detroit Auto Show

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Ford FusionThe funny thing is, there was nothing wrong with the old car.

In fact, the outgoing Ford (F) Fusion sedan had its best sales year ever in 2011, outselling the Honda (HMC) Accord and gaining ground on the longtime segment leader, Toyota's (TM) Camry. It's a good-looking, high-quality, capable entry that offers good value.

Or maybe I should say "was." On Monday, when Ford took the wraps off the all-new Fusion at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford upped its already pretty good game in a big way.

The Biggest Star at the Biggest Show

What's special about the new Fusion? First off, it's a hottie. The old Fusion was a good-looking sedan, but the new one is an exceptional design that bears a strong resemblance to the ultra-sleek (and ultra-expensive) coupes from Aston Martin, James Bond's favorite carmaker.

With its fluid, sleek lines, sloping roofline, Bond-esque grille, and well-executed detailing inside and out, the Fusion is suddenly the most striking car in a segment where "boring" has been king for a long time.

That alone would be a big story: Exciting designs help sell cars, and the Fusion's new looks make its competitors look suddenly stale in comparison. But the new Fusion brings a lot more to the table.

Ford Fusion

Ford expects the new sedan to have best-in-class fuel economy in both its gas-powered and hybrid versions. How good is "best-in-class"? Very good: The hybrid version is expected to get a whopping 47 miles per gallon in city driving. That's good enough to handily outperform the hybrid Camry as well as the hybrid version of Hyundai's popular Sonata sedan -- and pretty amazing for a midsize family sedan, when you think about it.

But if mileage is your thing, the story gets even better.

New Technology for the Blue Oval

In a surprise, Ford also presented a "plug-in" hybrid version, dubbed the Fusion Energi. This is new ground for Ford: Plug-in hybrids are sort of a cross between a regular hybrid and a true electric car. They have regular gasoline engines as well as a hybrid's electric drivetrain, but their batteries can be recharged externally -- you guessed it, by plugging in.

That plug-supplied charge gives the car's battery enough juice to take you a moderate distance, generally between 15 and 40 miles, without using any gas at all. Depending on the length of your commute, you might go for days without hearing the gas engine turn on -- but unlike the Nissan Leaf or one of Tesla Motors' (TSLA) creations, which are purely electric, you'll have the comfort of knowing that you can drive as far as you need to with tried-and-true gasoline.

Ford hasn't yet released exact range (or pricing) figures for the Fusion Energi, which won't reach dealerships until late this year. But the company did say that the car's "miles per gallon equivalent," a rating created by the EPA to allow consumers to compare cars that can run on electric power alone, would be more than 100. That's higher than the new plug-in version of Toyota's vaunted Prius, and higher than General Motors' (GM) acclaimed-but-troubled Chevy Volt.

But it's not the only new Fusion that's expected to outpace the competition.

A Big Jump on Tough Competitors

All versions of the Fusion are available with the goodies you'd expect if you've been paying attention to Ford's most recent models: A well-executed interior that looks and feels like a luxury car's, the latest version of Ford's acclaimed voice-activated SYNC "infotainment" system, and innovative new safety features like radar-guided systems that help you parallel park and keep your distance from other cars in traffic.

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As recently as a year or two ago, features like parallel-park assist were only found on high-end luxury cars like those from Toyota's Lexus brand. But Ford has found that including luxury features in mainstream models is a popular -- and profitable practice. Vehicles like the Explorer SUV and Focus compact can be -- and often are -- "optioned up" with things like premium sound systems and heated seats by buyers who are willing to pay a little extra for a more comfortable experience.
So does all of this add up to trouble for the competition? It might: While we'll have to wait until on-road reviews start coming in to be sure, it already looks like the new Fusion has raised the bar in a challenging segment. Toyota's Camry, which was all-new itself just a few months ago, suddenly looks like it has lost a step or two in comparison.

Like other recent Fords, the new Fusion is a global model, and it will be rolled out around the world over the next year or so. It will find lots of eager buyers -- and I think it'll continue its predecessor's work of gaining ground on key rivals everywhere it's sold.

At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford and General Motors.


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