Price: $22,165
Major equipment: 2.5-liter Duratec four-cylinder, six-speed manual transmission, sunroof, SYNC, autodim rear-view mirror.

In the fleet: 5/15/2009 – 5/22/2009

Approximate mileage driven: 450

J. BARUTH: Remember all the things we used to love about “foreign” sedans back in the dino-sized Big Three days of the Eighties? They were good-looking, reasonably-sized, fuel-efficient vehicles that offered manual transmissions, interesting equipment, decent handling, and bulletproof durability.

So now here we are in 2009, and the average “Camcord” is a bloated, cost-conscious, automatic-transmission sled. Meanwhile, Ford has a car that reminds us more than any current mainstream Japanese sedan of what those great Accords and Stanzas used to be like. It’s not overtly sporty, the convincing-looking wheel covers aside, but it’s an acceptably rapid, very spacious, rather pleasant conveyance. To make things more interesting, you can now choose the option of a six-speed manual transmission to help the 175-horsepower Duratec kick the Fusion down the road.

Our initial drive revealed one potential issue with putting a “standard shift” in the 2010 Fusion: in normal operation, you can’t hear the engine rev. At all. Only when the tach reaches all the way around the dial can you hear the typically charmless Duratec growl so familiar to Spec Focus racers everywhere; the rest of the time, you’d better watch the dash to make the most out of each gallon. Our observed road test average of 27.9 mpg was remarkable considering the frequency with which we pasted the accelerator to the carpet.

The interior’s a step down from the 2010 Fusion Sport we tested a few months ago, but it’s on par with the competition. Seating, in particular, is remarkably decent and supportive for long trips. Best of all, Ford’s class-leading SYNC system appears here in reasonably complete form, complete with Bluetooth integration. There’s no better way to use an iPod and a modern mobile phone together, and if you don’t want to use the voice commands, browsing through even a 12,000-song iPod like mine is reasonably efficient with the on-screen menus.

The transmission itself is pleasant and easy to operate, with a smooth takeup and throws that are long but not onerous. If you want to make rapid progress, however, you’ll find yourself rowing the ‘box quite a bit. The days are long gone when a 3400-pound car with 175 horsepower was considered “fast”. Just keeping up with modern V8-powered SUVs requires a heavy right foot and a quick left one. When the road curves, it’s apparent that the suspension tuning is very different from that which let the Fusion Sport roll through Ohio’s Hocking Hills with such alacrity during our 2010 Mustang GT test. This car is optimized for ride, not handling. Luckily, the ride is awfully good, particularly on choppy freeways.

The rest of the car is what you’d expect from a 2010 Fusion: enormous trunk, reasonable rear-seat space, aggressive new looks, class-leading durability and reliability. Ford is not shy about pointing out that you’re likely to get the same service out of a new Fusion that an Accord buyer would get from Honda’s midsizer, and at a lower cost.

Ah, cost. The sticker on our well-equipped tester barely broke $22K. It would take a particularly lousy negotiator to take one of these cars out of the showroom for more than twenty grand flat. For that money, you’ll get a car which offers everything the Japanese competition does, plus an extra gear in the manual transmission and a more aggressive look. This is really all the car most people need, and if fuel prices continue their recent climb, more and more drivers will find themselves learning how to shift again.

Given our choice, we’d ask Ford to combine this powertrain with a more aggressive suspension and wheel/tire combination, but let’s be honest: who’d buy it? The sporty customers will still gravitate towards the rapid, rewarding Fusion Sport. Best to leave this car the way it is: as a modern-day Accord in a sea of Accords that look more and more like old Ford Torinos.

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Jack Baruth

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