Missing the Mark

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2006

Ford Fusion. Interesting name choice. Futuristic, don't you think?

The Fusion is Ford's newest mid-size offering, a five-passenger car the company is no doubt hoping will turn around fortunes that have gone sour in the past few years. Like General Motors and Chrysler, Ford was outflanked by imported vehicles. Not long ago, Ford had the best-selling car, truck and sport utility in America. Now it says it must fire 30,000 workers to keep from drowning in red ink. It produced too many vehicles for a public that turned its attentions elsewhere.

And like GM, it made too many promises to too many workers when times were good and American car companies were Kings of the World. That no longer is the case. American car companies are on the endangered list.

There are many reasons why this is the case, besides union demands, worker salary and pension issues. The real bottom line is that American car companies couldn't produce a reliable car at an affordable price when competing against Asian competitors who could do the job better and more cheaply.

So what about the Fusion? Each new offering from any of the Big Three is a Big Deal today, a hopeful salvation for an important segment of the American economy.

The 2006 Ford Fusion is a nice car.

That's about all that can be said. It doesn't have a head-turning design. It features no technological advances. It's not the thriftiest or thirstiest in fuel consumption. It's just.a nice car.

Unfortunately, that's not what's needed. Achieving parity with import competitors is not sufficient to turn around a company's fortunes. Surpassing the competitors with desirable innovations is the only salvation.

The tested Fusion had a decent 3-liter V6 engine that returned 21 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway. That's quite good for a time when fossil fuel is running out and gasoline prices are likely to rise. Half of the all the world's oil had been used up as 2005 came to an end. The future is fossil-fuel scarcity; and that means higher prices for each barrel of oil.

The Fusion had a list price of $21,710, but that's deceptive-the bottom line for a Fusion decently equipped was $25,650. Many competitors with proven reliability and durability are available at that price.

To its discredit, Ford made items such as antilock brakes, traction control and side/head curtains optional. The air bags and antilock brakes add $595 each, and the traction control costs $95 more. Buyers can do without a super stereo system, but basic safety items should not be optional.

Our tester also had optional $895 leather seats, which contributed to the overall feeling that a Fusion is a comfortable family transport. The front seats were heated.

There are no major mistakes in the Fusion. Its six-speed automatic transmission performed smoothly during test week. It's up to date with a standard audio system that plays MP3 files-all new vehicles need this. Our tester added $420 worth of speakers and audio system doodads.

To introduce the Fusion, Ford paid for a profusion of television commercials showing the awe of those beholding a Fusion. The ads at first seemed more appropriate for a new soft drink, but the idea was to show effusion and energy-and that's where the name comes from.

Today, nuclear power comes from fission. Fission occurs when two or more nuclei slam together and split apart. That's not a good image when you're talking about vehicles, which is probably why we don't have a Ford Fission. Fusion, however, occurs when nuclei come together and form a heavier whole. Energy is created. Nuclear fusion promises perpetual energy some day, sustaining its own creation process and releasing excess energy that can be used for power. Cheap, reliable-and profoundly dangerous.

Fusion, you see, can run amok. A supernova is an example of fusion run amok; so is a hydrogen bomb. We have not yet learned how to control fusion in a way that assures us the Earth will not explode as a byproduct of our trying to cut back our dependence on oil.

But cut back we must. Hubbert's Peak, the date marking maximum worldwide oil production, is past. We are on the downside of a slippery mountain, our continued consumption complicated by the fact that all the world now wants the oil that made the industrial revolution here so profitable for a century. While China and India want oil to fuel their emerging economies, Americans remain the world's fossil-fuel hogs. And our vehicles are the biggest hogs on earth. But, hey, our car companies acted as if gasoline was forever.

The pity is that Ford and many other companies haven't really helped the world wean itself from oil addiction. The car companies talk big, but their actions are too little, too late. In fact, the Escape Hybrid SUV is Ford's sole contribution to hybrid vehicles, while Toyotas and Hondas upstage the others.

As American auto companies lost leadership in a relentless pursuit of quarterly shareholder return, the Asian and European automakers undertook (expensive) research that is paying off today and will pay off even more handsomely tomorrow. For the Big Three, there is nothing to blame but shortsightedness and greed. Once, they were kings. Sadly, they ignored the needs of their kingdom.

It's no secret that Ford needs a transfusion to stay alive. It needs a global best-seller. So we see the suffusion of Fusion ads attempting to energize Ford's fortunes.

It's a good car, but a far cry from what the world needs from its automakers. And Ford will remain on the endangered list.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Fobes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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