A Hybrid Done Right, but Not Without Glitches

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ELECTRONIC technology can be a double-edge sword, as Ford might attest after recent close shaves. The automaker's glitchy Sync and MyFord Touch infotainment systems -- co-developed, unsurprisingly, with Microsoft -- have provoked jeremiads from consumers and critics and have contributed to the brand's steep drop in consumer reliability ratings.

Now comes Ford hybrid technology that dazzles, even as its user interfaces continue to baffle. The 2013 Fusion Hybrid has the most robust, transparent and enjoyable hybrid system I've tested in a nonluxury automobile.

This gas-electric Ford also starts at a compelling $27,995, though my fully stuffed test car came to $34,770. But the number that Ford will plaster on every highway billboard is 47 m.p.g., the federal rating in both city and highway driving. That is a new high for a midsize family sedan, leaving even the Toyota Camry Hybrid (at 43 city, 39 highway) behind at the pump.

In my test car, MyFord Touch never froze, and it seemed to work a beat faster than before. It was all so very impressive. Until, that is, electronic safety systems unrelated to MyFord Touch -- the collision and lane-keeping monitors -- went haywire on Route 301 near Carmel, N.Y.

First, the optional radar-based forward collision warning system (included with the $995 adaptive cruise control system) began flashing its red lights on the windshield, even when no cars or obstacles were in the same ZIP code. I counted about 20 false alarms over a long drive.

Next, the camera-based lane-keeping monitor, which can vibrate the steering wheel to nudge daydreaming pilots and even impart wheel resistance to restore the proper path, began beeping or failing to beep unpredictably. That system is part of a $1,000 Driver Assist Package, whose other main feature is a monitor that alerts drivers to traffic in blind spots or crossing from the rear.

In the final indignity, the Fusion's MyKey system, unbidden so far as I could tell, decided to limit the car's top speed to 80 m.p.h. and restricted the audio system to less than half of the maximum volume. Parents can program such features into the car's key to safeguard teenagers who don't recognize limits or mortality.

My Fusion Hybrid had become futuristic in a way Ford hadn't planned, seizing my ship like the mutinous HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The safety monitors eventually gave up, displaying malfunction messages. At that point, I noted the odometer: the Fusion had traveled just 1,854 miles and still had a tang of new-car smell.

Having suffered other technical issues with recent Fords, my message to the company requires no chips or software, just a Sharpie with which I would scrawl this: Get your electronic house in order, Ford, before your reputation becomes as inoperable as your systems.

The electronic hijinks are a particular shame because in other respects the Fusion Hybrid sent the opposite message: that Ford's sophisticated hybrid technology bows to no one.

Compared with the departing model, this Hybrid mates a smaller, stingier gas engine with a more powerful electric motor. That motor is housed within an impressively compact, seamless, continuously variable transmission. That transmission, being made in-house at a Detroit area plant, replaces a unit previously sourced from Japan. It will power a range of Detroit-made hybrids and plug-ins, including C-Max wagons and Lincoln MKZ Hybrids.

The 2-liter, 141-horsepower engine pairs with an electric traction motor for total system power of 188 horses.

The robust power unit -- delivering 117 pound-feet of instant torque -- lets the Fusion go as fast as 62 miles per hour on electricity alone, up from 47 m.p.h. previously -- another record for any hybrid. That lets the Ford spend more travel time on its lithium-ion battery, bolstering efficiency.

And unlike many hybrids, the Fusion isn't a chore to drive. It's not the fastest sedan, but it's never stingy or tentative with power. You can tell it's a hybrid, yet the steering is surprisingly weighty and natural. The brake pedal is a model for other hybrids, transitioning smoothly from its electric-regenerative function to mechanical stopping power.

The battery steals some trunk space; the Hybrid has 12 cubic feet compared with 16 for other Fusions. The fuel tank shrinks as well, to 13.5 gallons versus 17.5 for gas-only models with front-wheel drive.

The Hybrid also integrates four driver-selectable data screens, including sprouting green leaves, to coach drivers to fuel-saving heights.

I piled up my own leaves, but couldn't match those eye-popping estimates. Yet a light foot kept the Ford between 41 and 45 m.p.g. even in town.

Come spring, Ford will cap the midsize lineup with the Fusion Energi, a plug-in hybrid whose gas-equivalent economy rating should top 100 m.p.g.e., surpassing the less-roomy Toyota Prius plug-in and the Chevrolet Volt.

This strong, wide-ranging Fusion lineup could still be a momentum booster for Ford, which has enjoyed a postrecession run of sales and consumer buzz. Let's hope that electronic hiccups aren't a buzzkill for buyers who expect reliability to match the cars' terrific style, performance and economy.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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