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Fusion shows Ford is on the right track


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Link: http://www.detnews.com/2005/insiders/0509/...auto-304565.htm

Fusion shows Ford is on the right track

By John McCormick / Autos Insider

SANTA MONICA, CA -- If first impressions are a good guide, then Ford Motor Co. is on the right track with the 2006 Fusion mid-sized sedan. A test drive through the hilly northern suburbs of Los Angeles revealed a car that's comfortable, engaging to drive, well finished inside and fairly well equipped for its $17,795 starting price.
These positive traits will be sorely needed because the Fusion has a big role to play in Ford's future. As Steve Lyons, company group vice-president for North American marketing, sales and service, puts it: "Arguably, it's the most important car launch for Ford since the Taurus in 1995."

The Fusion will play in a two million-plus market segment, dominated for years by Japanese models such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Ford doesn't expect to steal these buyers overnight, but it does have its own wells to draw on. Every year, thousands of Mustang owners trade in their cars for a mid-size sedan and until now Ford showrooms have had nothing to offer them. Also there are many Ford Explorer and Expedition-owning households that also have sedans in their driveways; that car could be a Fusion, reasons Lyons.

In terms of marketing, Ford has to cast a wide net to capture the Fusion's intended audience; everyone from maturing Gen Xers, to NASCAR fans, to middle aged and older buyers, notes Fusion's spirited launch manager Jyarland Jones. A major racing program, heavy internet presence and music concerts will all be part of the sales campaign, dubbed 'Life in Drive', she says.

Developing a car for such a broad target group is always a challenging endeavor, but Ford had some bright individuals masterminding the Fusion program. Heading the effort is Phil Martens, group vice president of product creation, who past achievements include creation of the well-received Mazda6 sedan, which is the basis for the Fusion.

Another key player is Paul Mascarenas, a quietly spoken, determined Brit, who as vice president of North American vehicle programs, is responsible not just for the Fusion, but for all Ford's forthcoming cars and trucks. As such, Marcarenas will be dictating the overall character and driving qualities of Fords for years to come. It's a huge job, he acknowledges, but one he relishes. His formula for the Fusion was to prioritize engineering goals; top of the list, a comfortable ride, then good packaging, and thirdly decent handling. Such an order suggests the Fusion might join the ranks of the overly-light steering, loose handling mid-size sedans currently on offer.

However, the first 50-yards in a Fusion reveals that its steering is far from finger light and, at higher speeds, provides a pleasing combination of firmness, precision and tactile feedback. For a driving enthusiast, the degree of steering effort built into the Fusion is a welcome change from the over-boosted systems found in most US rivals. Taking this approach was not without controversy as other voices within the company favored lighter steering, but Marcarenas, with years of experience developing taut-handling European Fords behind him, persevered.

The outcome is an entertaining new player in the heart of the car market and bodes well for the driving character of Fords to come.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Insider and can be reached at [email protected]

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