Ford Hybrid Shows Green Can Be Fun If You Enjoy Being Despised

Keep your eye on the price, the earth's salvation! {The SmartGauge on the Ford Fusion Hbyrid}

Keep your eye on the price, the earth

June 4 (Bloomberg) — I have become what I most hate. As the traffic light turns green on Manhattan’s Park Avenue I feather the gas pedal, softly rolling forward. Horns blare and yellow cabs swirl round my blue Ford like a river divided by a rock.

I coast the Fusion Hybrid to the next light, ignoring the invective directed at me, the maddeningly slow driver clogging up traffic.

But damn I’m getting good gas mileage. {TO read on Bloomberg News}

If sports-car lovers fixate over Nurburgring lap times and power-to-weight ratios, there’s an equally obsessive eco-green set who argue over consumption-over-distance ratios and the etiquette of hypermiling — the practice of driving to maximize fuel economy.

The latter group has another midsize hybrid to obsess about, and this time it’s from a U.S. automaker. Ford’s Fusion Hybrid gets Environmental Protection Agency estimates of 41 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway.

But it can achieve better than that — way better — driven “correctly.” Ford advertises that the 17.5-gallon tank will last you for 700 miles in the city, yet a Ford team wrangled 1,445 miles in a test — more than 80 mpg. The problem is that the driving style needed to achieve those numbers will raise the blood pressure of your fellow road users.

The midsize sedan seats five and starts at $27,270, a sizable premium over the base $19,270 Fusion. A $1,700 Federal hybrid tax credit is good until Sept. 30.

Braking Energy

Ford’s other available hybrid is the $29,645 Escape Hybrid SUV, which also seats five and gets 34 city, 31 highway. There are also Mercury versions of the Fusion and Escape, the Milan Hybrid and Mariner Hybrid. In all, Ford has upped its hybrid production to 50,000 units for 2009.

The Fusion Hybrid has a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor for combined power of 191 horses. Ford says the car can operate up to 47 mph in electric mode. Like the Toyota Prius, it uses nickel-metal-hydride batteries and a regenerative brake system to recapture energy.

As for looks and design, except for the shiny three-tiered grill and the honeycombed taillights, it has about as much style as knit sweaters. From the lackluster rims, which look like they’re made of plastic, to the generic sedan shape, the Fusion has no flash whatsoever. Both the rear seats and the trunk are cramped as the battery pack is stored back there.

The economical aesthetic extends to the interior. You like your plastic garnished with cheap-looking cloth? You’re in luck. Fortunately, heated and leather-trimmed seats are available, as is Ford’s fine SYNC infotainment system.

Digital Display

Engineers spent lots of time on the instrument cluster, coined SmartGauge. The digital display flashes fancifully when you turn the car on, showing a speedometer flanked by data on the operation of the hybrid systems and real-time mileage.

How much information you get is up to you. There are four modes, from basic “inform,” giving only fuel and battery charge levels, to “empower,” which even tells you how much energy the air conditioning is sucking.

The goal is to use the readings to maximize your driving efficiency. It definitely works, though it can be as distracting as a video game.

As with other hybrid and electric cars, there’s no start-up noise when you switch the Fusion on, and the continuous variable transmission means there’s no shifting. The transitions between gas and electric power are mostly seamless.

Slow Start

The Fusion has a tight turning radius and though you won’t mistake the steering or suspension for a German-made car, they are acceptable. Power is adequate. It’s no less fun to drive than a Toyota Camry.

Which brings us to those driving techniques that make you public enemy number one. The best mileage is achieved when the electric motor is on, and the best way to do that is to avoid stopping or, when you must, to start off again very slowly.

This is, of course, the opposite of New York City driving etiquette — mashing on the gas to surge through gaps and slamming on brakes at stoplights. Mincing through traffic instead put me in real-time mpg of 60.

The art of hypermiling is controversial as it can include illegal maneuvers such as rolling through stop signs and drafting, or following another vehicle closely to reduce wind resistance. Ford says the team who got 80 mpg did not do that.

Either way, you have to keep the speed down, often to far slower than the flow of traffic. Hitting a parkway, I drive a steady 55 miles per hour and get 50 mpg. Nice. Eyes on the SmartGauge, I slow down. At 49 mph an octogenarian in an Oldsmobile blows by, honking her horn. Embarrassing, but I’m in the 60-mpg range.

I kick the air conditioning up to full blast and the SmartGauge scolds me for sucking lots of extra energy. I quickly stab it off, feeling sheepish.

In fact, I feel a bit giddy. Green can be fun. I wonder how long it takes for this feeling to fade. I’m guessing the first time you’re late for work.

The 210 Ford Fusion Hybrid at a Glance

Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder and electric motor, with a net 191 horsepower.

Transmission: Electronically controlled continuously variable transmission.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 41 city; 36 highway.

Price as tested: $29,920.

Best feature: Good gas mileage mated with the SmartGauge info system.

Worst feature: Drab styling.

Target buyer: The budding hypermiler.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at