From the Ford galaxy, space-age Fusion

With his passing, Larry Hagman garnered tribute for his portrayal of ruthless Texas oil man JR Ewing on Dallas. But it was his earlier role on I Dream of Jeannie, depicting astronaut Tony Nelson, where he gave expression to the space-race, atomic-age expectation that Americans would find technical solutions to all problems.

In those days, fusion power was right around the corner. Surely by 2013 Maj Nelson and his sharp NASA colleagues would have put JR and his petro-oligarch buddies out of business with fusion energy, right? It has not turned out that way, but the sharp minds at Ford have given us something at least nominally futuristic: the Fusion Energi.

Ford’s engineers lack access to an all-powerful genie, but they do a serviceable impersonation of alchemists, spinning lithium ions into gold. Driving the Fusion Energi feels suitably otherworldly, as it whirrs silently around town. We have had hybrids for a while, but they run their gas engines so frequently that any fantasies of saving the world by driving a car – or at least reducing one’s environmental impact thereupon – feel naive. Vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf can feel more like corrections for past sins than desirable pods of virtue.

The Fusion Energi is not so afflicted largely because it looks fabulous, like all 2013 Fusions, with sinuous lines and that Aston Martin-aping grille that Ford design boss J Mays swears – swears – was not intentionally lifted.

The car is just as lovely inside. A flip-down of a sun visor is sufficient to demonstrate this: the fabric is pleasing to the touch, eschewing the awful plastic bits used in too many cars whose makers should know better. The thick-rimmed steering wheel conveys heft along with useful information about the road surface and the grip of the front tires, in contrast with the artificial feeling of the electric power steering on most EVs and hybrids. Meanwhile, the Fusion Energi’s suspension provides the ride that drivers want rather than the economy-car ride and shopping-cart-with-a-defective-wheel dynamics typical among other hybrids and EVs.

The battery pack provides a nominal electric driving range of 25 miles on a perfect 22C (72F) day. Turn on the air conditioner and the range drops by about 20%. In the winter and at night, seat heaters and headlights would take a bigger toll.

But with its 118-horsepower electric motor and 7.6 kilowatt-hour battery pack, the Fusion Energi runs at real-world speeds around town and on the highway, contributing to its futuristic alt-fuel feel. The four-cylinder, 141hp gasoline engine only starts if a driver mashes the accelerator pedal. When the electric range is exhausted, the gas engine starts, but at highway speed the wind and road noise largely overwhelm the thrum from the engine.

The back seat offers another contrast to typical EV fare, with ample leg room. This is a great family car, provided the family travels light. On account of the battery pack, the Fusion’s trunk is better suited to a weekend for two than for the Great American Road Trip. Compounding that problem, the ski pass-through area is closed on the Fusion Energi, even though it is not entirely blocked by the battery pack. This is an unpleasant discovery when leaving the lumber yard with 2 x 4s and no tidy place to house them.

For most use cases, the battery power was sufficient. The dashboard display reported that the car was achieving 52mpg on gasoline power, and the average fuel economy on combined gas and electric power was 82mpg in around-town conditions.

The drains on electric-mode capability arose with multiple short trips that left little charging time between them. The included 120v charger will top off a depleted battery in seven hours, but if a weekend warrior keeps running back to the store for another box of deck screws, it never catches up.

A proper 240v home charger – or ready access to public 240v chargers – would maximise the Energi’s electric potential, but these tend to cost a couple thousand dollars once installed – which only serves to exacerbate the issue of the Energi’s price tag. At $42,000, this test car was pretty dear for what remains a Ford family sedan, especially when a similarly equipped, non-plug-in Fusion Hybrid could be had for $9,000 less.

The decider, then, is the electric driving experience. For a dedicated subset of Fusion Energi buyer, petrol-free power justifies the price premium over the Fusion Hybrid. But for the many drivers who would otherwise embrace it, the Fusion Energi remains out of orbit.

Vital stats: 2013 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium

  • Base price: $40,895, inclusive of $795 destination
  • As tested: $41,690
  • EPA fuel economy: 100 MPGe combined driving gas/electric, 43mpg combined gas-only
  • Powertrain: 141hp, 2-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine, 118hp permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor, 7.6kWh lithium-ion battery pack, continuously variable transmission, front-wheel drive
  • Standard equipment: 17in aluminum wheels, heated leather 10-way power driver’s seat, keyless entry, keyless start, fog lamps, back-up camera
  • Major options: GPS navigation