I’ve driven a couple of Prius models, and have to say that although the technology was impressive, the car itself was not particularly good, proving to be as appliance-like to drive as almost all other products from the vast Toyota empire. I had noticed that Hertz in the US had moved away from offering the Prius (even before the “savaged with the Ugly Stick” fourth generation model had been revealed), as their product in a special Hybrid Car rental category, and were now offering the Hyundai Sonata, one of many family sized saloons now offered with the option of Hybrid technology. To see what you gained and lost, I planned to try to source a standard Sonata and follow it immediately with a Hybrid one so I could make a true comparison. Having duly sampled the regular 2.4 litre petrol Hyundai, and been favourably impressed, I arrived at the Sky Harbor rental facility in Phoenix, with a reservation which I felt sure should give me the car I wanted as comparison. As is often the case with rental cars, it did not. Instead, there was a Ford Fusion Hybrid with my name on it, in a very attractive colour which Ford call Deep Blue Metallic. As I’d driven a regular Fusion only the day before the Sonata, this was clearly going to be just as valid a comparison, so I did not try to get the car swapped even though there were several of the Sonata Hybrids on site at the time. I was a bit disappointed by the 2.5 litre petrol Fusion, feeling that the engine and gearbox let the side down rather badly, so I was really interested to see whether the Hybrid model would be more to my taste.
Hybrid Fusion models are powered by a 4 cylinder 2 litre engine, which when you add in the extra capability of the battery gives a total of 188 bhp, making it slightly more powerful than the 2.5 litre petrol car that I had previously driven. There is a CVT gearbox, and the Hybrid is front wheel drive only, unlike the regular cars which can be supplied with all-wheel drive. When you get in the Fusion Hybrid, and turn the conventional ignition key, there is just that eery silence that you get with a Hybrid car. The presence of green lights on the dash is your clue that the car is ready for action, and once a gear is selected, it will now move away solely on battery power. The petrol engine cuts in very smoothly, usually once you are travelling at a few mph. Thereafter you probably won’t notice the transition from petrol to battery much, but what you will appreciate is just how quiet this can make the car when cruising on the freeway. It seemed noticeably more refined than the model powered solely by petrol, and with little intrusion from the wind or tyres either, particularly low overall noise levels made this a very peaceful place indeed in which to travel. There’s no real penalty in terms of power or acceleration, either, with the Fusion Hybrid proving quite responsive to the driver’s right foot, and whilst you would not describe it as a fast car, it was more than able to keep up with the flow of traffic. Acceleration was decent, and the car never felt like you were driving an economy special, with plenty of power available for those sudden burst of acceleration when you wanted to pass something. I took the Fusion Hybrid east of Phoenix, out to Globe, and there are some long and steady climbs on the freeway, none of which seemed to trouble the car at all. The real gains, of course, come at the pump. Over a test distance of 282 miles, I averaged 43.7 mpg US (that is 52.21 mpg Imperial), and a significant improvement on what I achieved with the petrol-only car.
In all other respects, this felt just like a standard Fusion. That means you get steering and handling which is among the best in class, with particularly well-judging weighting and a precise feel to the steering, and a poise when going around the corners, almost completely without a trace of roll, which makes the car that bit more engaging to drive than almost all of its competitors. It rides nicely, too, with a firmness which seemed just right to me, lacking the overly-soft suspension of some of the rivals, and yet not being too stiffly sprung to punish the occupants. Producing a braking system, complete with the regenerative capability that transfers charge to the battery, is something that most makers of hybrid cars have found quite difficult, with the result often being a jerky feel to the system, but the Fusion Hybrid did not seem to suffer unduly in this respect. Visibility is much as with modern cars with their high belt-lines and relatively small glass areas. It’s not bad, though the angled rear screen means that judging the back end of the car makes you rely on the rear-view camera which projects a clear image onto the infotainment screen. Otherwise, there were no significant issues.
At a first glance, the dashboard looks identical to that of the regular car. But look more closely and there is a difference. There’s no rev counter. So instead of two large round dials in the instrument cluster as you get on the non-Hybrid cars, here you get one, just a single speedo unit in the middle of the display, which retains the slightly unusual and quite pleasing turquoise colouring of the standard car. To either side are a series of digital display areas. That on the left has vehicle info settings and all the trip functions that you are get on the regular car as well as data points on how many EV miles you have covered and the battery regeneration you achieved. That to the right has a series of economy-related displays with a “coach” on your acceleration, braking and cruising, as well as various fuel consumption average bar charts. You cycle between the various menu options using buttons set in each of the steering wheel spokes.
Otherwise, all is the same as a standard Fusion. And that is generally a Good Thing, as this is one of the better interior layouts of current Ford products, avoiding the needless fussiness of the smaller Fiesta and Focus models, with flowing and contoured shapes and a driver-orientation to the overall design. The main dash moulding is made from a decent quality plastic, which is quite soft to the touch, and there is judicious use made of metal inlays which go around the edge of the air vents, the instrument cluster and line the sides of the central console area, as well as a high gloss black inlay on the console. Although the actual button count is quite high, the overall impression is not that this is the case. Column stalks operate indicators and wipers and the lights function from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. the centre of the dash contains a small colour display screen for the infotainment system, and as it is not touch-sensitive in this version, that means that there are really quite a lot of buttons to operate it both to either side and below the unit. Despite this, or maybe, because of this, it proved easy to operate and to find what I wanted among the available features. Below this are a lot more buttons for the dual zone climate control. It all proved easy to assimilate and to operate. There are audio unit repeaters and the buttons for cruise control on the steering wheel boss.
The passenger compartment is exactly the same as in the non-Hybrid models. That means that you get cloth trim, and even though this was an SE version, so not the luxury version, electrically adjustable front seats, including lumbar support. You can move these in all the ways that you would expect, but I still did not find them as good as some cars, with the seat cushion not feeling quite right, even though the lumbar support seemed better. There is a telescoping in/out and as well as up/down adjustment of the steering wheel, so the driving position I could set was the one I wanted. Those in the back will fare decently well. Legroom is good when the front seats are set well forward, as they were for my driving position, and even if they are back a bit, there will be sufficient for most people. Headroom is not an issue, despite the slightly sloping roof line, and three adults will just about fit across the width of the seat, though the central console moulding does come quite well back, so the middle seat occupant may have to sit with their legs astride this. There is a pull-down central armrest.
It is when you open the boot lid that you see the obvious penalty of the Hybrid system. Instead of a large and flat-floored boot, there is now quite a raised area at the seat-end of the luggage area, for the battery, which reduces total capacity quite a bit. It also means that the floor is not flat. with quite a rise between the battery area and the rest. You can increase load capacity still by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seats. You may have a problem getting large items in, as the boot lid itself is quite small, something that is not a problem with the hatch versions of the Fusion sold in Europe, of course., Inside the cabin, there is reasonable provision for odds and ends. The decent sized glovebox is complemented by bins on all four doors, a cubby under the central armrest, a pair of cup holders in the central console and an area in front of the gearlever, sort of under the central console, which although awkward to get at, would hold small items. Those in the back get map pockets on the back of the front seats as well as bins on the doors.
The Hybrid models are available in the same three trim levels as the regular petrol-only cars, which means S, SE and Titanium, and they have changed little since launch for the 2013 model year. The test car was an SE, and this is the trim you would probably want, as it includes features that are absent on the cheaper S model. although even this is far from the stripped-out basic car that you might fear. Standard spec on the S, which lists for $25,675, includes 16″ alloys, body coloured door handles, lower sills in black, solar tinted glass, an alarm and anti-theft system, a backup camera, cruise control, auto headlights, air conditioning, remote boot release, one touch power operated front windows, and Ford’s MySync system with a colour display screen, voice activation including an audio unit with AM/FM radio, single slot CD, MP3 and AUX slot and wheel mounted repeater controls, along with the Ford Message Centre. It costs another $805 to jump to the SE, which brings with it 17″ alloy wheels, the SecuriCode keyless entry system, a rear centre armrest, 6 speakers and XM Satellite radio, heated mirrors with puddle lights and integrated turn signals, and power adjustable front seats, 10 way for the driver and 6 way for the passenger, a compass, an exterior temperature sensor, rear seat power outlets and air vents. The Titanium is rather more costly, at $31,430, and for the extra money you get lower profile tyres on 17″ rims, dual bright exhaust tips, a leather wrapped steering wheel, rear parking sensors, keyless starting, a mirror memory, an upgraded premium sound system, an 8″ touch-sensitive colour infotainment system, dual zone automated climate control, leather seat trim with heated driver’s seat and a seat memory.
I was quite impressed by the Fusion Hybrid. Rather more so than I was by the regular 2.,5 litre petrol model I had driven a few days earlier, in fact, where the combination of engine and gearbox were something of a disappointment, even though there was much about the rest of the car that was pleasing. All those attributes are present here, and indeed the only real penalty for choosing the Hybrid seemed to be the reduction in boot space, but in exchange for this, you get a car which is rather quieter and more refined and considerably more economical. When the rental cost is the matter of a couple of dollars a day, it would seem to be an easy choice to take one as opposed to a petrol-only car. If, however, you are buying one yourself, the maths are not quite as easy. There is quite a price difference for the Hybrid, though this diminishes the higher up the range you go. For an SE, you will pay $2305 more for the Hybrid car, but this gap reduces to just $310 for the Titanium, thanks to the fact that the petrol-only car has a more costly and more potent engine. Perhaps for the first time when driving a Hybrid, I could see that not only is this the future that we are all going to have to get to used (as is surely the case), but that it may even be preferable to the old-tech petrol-only ways go doing this. It will be interesting to see if this applies more widely than just to the Fusion, so I still need to try to get that Sonata Hybrid as a further comparison point. Watch this space.