First Drive: Ford Fusion Energi Plug-In Hybrid

By · March 29, 2013

Ford Fusion Energi

The Ford Fusion Energi in New York. (Jim Motavalli photo)

NEW YORK CITY—The New York International Auto Show is a one-stop-shop under the roof of the cavernous Javits Center, but it’s occasionally possible to get out onto the street. I ventured onto 10th Avenue for a chance to drive the brand-new Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid—the companion car to the C-Max Energi, which has an almost identical drivetrain.

Making a Lifestyle Choice

Ford’s Sam Hoyt told me that Fusion vs. C-Max is a “lifestyle choice,” meaning if you want sedan styling cues and worry that the C-Max is too much of a “station wagon,” you’ll buy the slightly larger Fusion. The C-Max is cheaper ($29,995) but the Fusion comes with more standard features.

Hoyt said that only 200 of the Fusions have been sold so far, but 800 are in stock at dealerships around the country—you won’t find one in North Dakota, though. Some 900 of Ford’s dealers have signed on to be EV certified, but only 300 are now. “We aim to have at least one dealer in every state,” Hoyt said. Predictably, the Fusion is selling best in California, but Hoyt said it’s also doing well in what she called the “breadbasket states” of the Midwest.

Ford Fusion Energi

The Ford Fusion Energi: lots of luggage space, thanks to a smaller battery. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Energi vs. Volt

Why should you buy an Energi instead of a Chevy Volt, which is about the same price ($39,495 for the Ford, though the federal income tax credit is $3,750 instead of $7,500)? Ford is boasting that it offers five-passenger seating instead of the Volt’s four. An Energi selling point for me is a nicer interior—I’ve always found the Volt’s skimpy back seat and unfinished-looking trunk area unimpressive.

Another plus in the Fusion’s column is that the gas engine recharges the battery as you drive—though not to a full charge. The Volt doesn’t do this, with Chevy engineers explaining that it’s more efficient to recharge the battery from wall power.

Sizing the Battery

Hoyt said that Ford made tradeoffs with the Fusion Energi. Yes, the company could have gone with a larger battery for more electric cruising range (and a full federal credit). “But then the battery would have been twice as big and we wouldn’t have been left with any trunk space,” she said. “We looked at the average commute, and arrived at a solution that would allow many owners to drive for a month without stopping for gas. A 35-mile electric range was more than we needed.”

Like the Volt, Energi offers a big cruising range, 620 miles, and 21 miles on electricity alone (maybe 15 if it’s cold). It’s rated at 100 MPGe, 92 highway and 108 around town. Without the blended battery power, acting like a regular Fusion Hybrid, it delivers 47 mpg in town and on the highway. The two-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine offers 149 horsepower, and there’s 195 net horsepower on tap from the two powertrains. Expect 188 horsepower in sustain mode (after the battery power is exhausted). The lithium-ion battery pack is rated at 7.6 kilowatt hours, which is too small for the full federal credit.

On the Road

OK, enough nuts and bolts. The Fusion Energi was at the curb, and its high-tech cabin inviting. I’ve driven the C-Max Energi, and I’d be lying if I said the experience was much different. I was in charge-depleting mode for the brief drive, which means it was an electric car for me.

I’m still not conditioned to electric cars that don’t “start.” Get in, turn the key, and off you go. There was a nice surge of smooth power during a brief bit of open traffic on the avenue, and ultra-quiet operation. Some have described the regen braking as “aggressive,” but I found it mild. I’d actually like it dialed up a bit, but the Fusion Energi does not offer a “B” mode.

I like the steering feel in today’s Fords (including the Focus and Fiesta) and thought the Energi handled well. My drive was far too short to get a real sense of what the car can do, but it left a favorable impression--it felt solid, well-engineered and--did I mention this?--very, very quiet.

Plugged In

Of course, there’s a ton of electronic aids. My car had the parking assist feature, which worked wonderfully well on the New York street. As with other of these systems, you pull forward of the space, and when the screen tells it’s detected a space you let it take over, controlling only the accelerator and brake. Other stuff: an LED illuminated charge port (shades of Tesla), MyFord Mobile to help you schedule a charging session and find available stations, and a gauge cluster with readouts for virtually everything you need to know about state of charge and depletion.

Should you consider the Fusion Hybrid as a cheaper alternative? Maybe. But for the many California buyers, that choice won’t get you the much-coveted HOV lane access. And in California the car also comes with a $1,500 state rebate that wouldn’t apply to the hybrid model. These two things alone will sell a lot of cars.

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