Archive for the ‘Ford’ Category

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Electric Flash: Green Cars are Getting Stylish

April 3, 2015
BMW i8

BMW i8 – Style and Eco-friendly

 By Roger Witherspoon

            A car doesn’t have to be dull and plodding to be green.

One wouldn’t know that from the proficient, but uninspiring plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles that crawled off the drawing boards of the major auto companies. But that seems about to change.

“We call ourselves the ultimate driving machine,” said Matt Russell of BMW North America. “Preserving that driving experience is everything to us. We sell to those who really love driving, and we needed a way to build a sports car that was also energy efficient.

“We needed a sports car that can go from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds, top out at 155 miles an hour and has a fuel efficiency rating of 72 miles per gallon. And that’s the BMW i8.”

The i8, unveiled at the New York International Auto Show, is a stealth fighter of a car built to flow through the air rather than punch through it. There are grooves in the body designed to channel onrushing air through a narrow opening in the rear, not unlike the combustion chamber of the average jet. The result, at high speed, is you ride on a cushion of air and hear nothing from the world outside.

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Not to be outdone Porsche has taken its Cayenne, the 150-miles per hour SUV, and retooled a plug-in hybrid version as a family-friendly companion to its hybrid Panamera sports car.

“It’s our feeling that electric motors are the wave of the future,” said Porsche spokesman Thomas Hagg. “But the technology isn’t quite there yet and the infrastructure and market aren’t ready for completely electric vehicles. But we feel it is certainly coming, so we have begun moving in that direction with the plug-in hybrid.  The Panamera proved that we can have an electric hybrid that meets the quality demands of Porsche in terms of performance and handling.

“But to really move our brand into the electric future we needed to develop a plug-in hybrid for the Cayenne, which is our best-selling model.”

The combined Porsche power plant was on display at the New York exhibit, which lasts till April 12, but is definitely not just for show. The Cayenne has a 95 horsepower electric motor combined with a 333 horsepower, three-liter V6 engine. One can drive the Cayenne about 20 miles on purely electric power – which is ample for many commutes – and the combined power plant gets about 50 miles per gallon.

While BMW and Porsche may have had the plug-in hybrid showstoppers, they were certainly not alone among auto makers who see an increasingly electric future. Ford’s popular Fusion has a plug-in electric model and Mitsubishi, which introduced a newly designed Outlander SUV, is also bringing out a part-electric hybrid version.

Mitsubishi iMiEV:

Mitsubishi iMiEV

The company tentatively entered the all-electric market with its iMiEV, an awkwardly named vehicle that most resembled an ostrich egg on wheels. It was comfortable and efficient. But cars are a form of sculpture defined by how they make a person stop, look, and feel when standing close and then sitting inside. For many families, it is the largest form of kinetic art they will buy. As art works, the iMiEV or BMW’s i3 would never draw a crowd.

Hence the change. “The Outlander plug-in hybrid,” said Mitsubishi Executive Vice President Don Swearingen, “is a bigger vehicle and clearly one that will appeal to more consumers than the fully electric ones with their more limited range.

“We actually developed it a few years ago and started selling it in Japan and then in Europe. The demand was so high that the plant that makes our batteries is at full capacity. We still are offering all electric cars, but our growth opportunity is in the plug-in space. I drive a fully electric car, but I live 40 miles from work. As long as I can charge each night and again at the office it works fine.  But if I want to make a longer trip, a decision has to be made as to what car to use.

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

“With the plug-in hybrid, all those considerations go away. We felt it important to offer a plug-in, five-passenger vehicle, which has 4-wheel drive capabilities and is a great opportunity for families. Since we were redesigning the Outlander, it made sense to design a version for the electric motor and batteries.”

While the regular Outlander is a seven passenger SUV, the hybrid version will seat five people, and the added space will be taken up by the battery pack. The Outlander will have two 60-horsepower electric motors – one assigned to each axle – as well as a 121-horsepower, 4-cylinder gasoline engine. The combination delivers about 44 miles per gallon.

Electric cars dominated American roadways for the first 20 years of the 20th Century, but quickly lost out to gasoline-powered vehicles which could go a lot further without worrying about a dead battery.

“Electric cars were initially the best sellers,” said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. “The assumption was that if there is going to be any widespread use of horseless carriages, electricity has a lot of advantages. You could start it easily and you didn’t need to shift any gears because of the torque characteristics of electric motors.

“In the 1890s people were making electric cars and steam-powered cars and then there was a newcomer in the lot – a smoky, noisy, dirty, internal combustion engine.  In those early days, it wasn’t clear what these things were good for.  If you lived in a city, public transportation was very good and the cities were very walkable.

“If you had a car, you used it to drive into the country at what was then considered the astonishing speeds of 15 miles per hour. But you couldn’t go far into the country because the roads were bad and there was no electricity and no place to recharge. The gas cars were much better suited to that use. By 1909 the electric car and steam car were both sold at the margins, and the market was dominated by cars powered by the internal combustion engine.”

The second coming of electric cars hasn’t changed that equation much.

“Right now,” said Orth Hedrick, Kia’s vice president for product planning, “electric vehicles are just three to five percent of the market, and the driving range is the biggest factor holding them back.

“Most people are used to a gas tank with 250 to 300 miles of driving range. But you can’t use an EV to go take a trip to see Grandma.  A lot of people view driving EVs like leaving the driveway with the gas empty light on and wondering how far they can go before the car stops.”

The technical fix to that anxiety was the plug-in hybrid.

Chevy Volt

Chevy Volt

When Chevrolet came out with its 2011 Volt plug-in hybrid it stressed the fact that the compact could get more than 300 miles to a tank of gas. Having the electric motors directly on the axle provided instant torque, enabling the small car to take off like a turbocharged roadster.  The Volt definitively proved the concept of the plug-in hybrid, even if its looks didn’t wow the consumers.

Which is why Kia is banking on an all-electric version of its youth-oriented Soul, a car marketed with hip-hop hamsters to lure a younger generation to its environmentally friendly wheels.  Basketball star Lebron James may lure buyers into Kia showrooms to see their high-performing sports car, the K-900. But once they are in the showroom, Kia is banking on the Now Generation driving off in an urban-oriented Soul.

“We designed the electric and the gas versions at the same time, rather than take an existing car and modify it so you lose space to the batteries,” explained Hedrick. “The Soul will get 93 miles before you need to recharge, which is the best range in the electric car market except for the $80,000 Tesla, which costs three times as much.

“The Soul is our best-selling vehicle. It has a cool, funky design that is perfect for the urban buyer and it will be the cornerstone of our clean mobility program.”

And Kia’s hamsters will bounce merrily to the quieter beat.

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop

 

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The Ford F-150 Still the Runaway Best Seller

January 14, 2013

 

 13 Ford F-150 Raptor - front profile

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            It was dark, the moon was full, and Superstorm Sandy was at its raging height pushing a record 14 foot wall of water along the New York-New Jersey coastlines and up connecting rivers. The wave rolled through New York harbor, surged around the Statue of Liberty and then rolled up the Hudson River.

In better times the Hudson both empties into and is fed by the Atlantic Ocean at the foot of Manhattan. When the ocean tide is high the Atlantic flows into and up the river, creating a 100 mile salt water estuary. At low tide, the 300-mile Hudson brings fresh water from upstate New York down to the wide Atlantic. In midwinter, diners on the river’s edge can watch the ice flow one way as they order appetizers and reverse course as they finish dessert.

That’s also why Rick Nestler’s folk song, “The River That Flows Both Ways,” is the anthem of Clearwater, the environmental group Pete Seeger founded to clean up the historic river. (  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5wnbDcZXUc  )

But the night Sandy rolled up the Hudson was not like old times. The wall of water surged up the river, spreading out to fill in bays and streams, flowing up banks, covering riverside parks, roadways and rail yards. At the end of Peekskill Bay the water began rising over a low-lying causeway carrying the two-lane Bear Mountain Extension, which provided the shortest route to Camp Smith, an Army base, and then zigzagged up the mountainside to the Bear Mountain Bridge, about 10 miles south of West Point.

Normally, that section of the Extension was nearly even with the tufted tops of the wild phragmites grasses that hugged the shoreline. But not this night. The wild grass and the lowest portion of the roadway – a stretch of about 20 yards – were lost under about four feet of the dark rolling waters of the Hudson River. And it was still rising.

It seemed impenetrable. But then an emergency worker in a Ford F-150 Raptor pickup truck gunned his engine and barreled through the water, which was about even with the truck’s hood, using the still visible guard rails to gauge where the actual roadway was. He stopped at the entrance to the causeway and began putting out flares to block the road as water cascaded out of the pickup’s flooded cargo bed.

“How did you get through that?” I asked him.2012 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor

“I don’t know, man. I just gunned it, crossed my fingers, prayed and went. I won’t try it twice. The water is still rising.”

The flares did not deter the drivers of two, huge, military trucks, who were bound for CampSmith, from ignoring the warnings and heading so slowly into the water they barely made a ripple. At the deepest point, as the water lapped their hoods, the trucks stalled. The utility worker called for police support and raced down the roadway. In minutes, dozens of police cars drove onto the causeway, the officers piling out in an effort to help the trapped soldiers. In the end, it took a lot of police and a fleet of kayaks to get them out.

So why did the F-150 make it when the Army trucks didn’t?

A series of Ford spokesmen blanched at the query, since the truck is rated at being able to ford 30 inches of water and the company emphatically does not recommend going through streams higher than the middle of its 17-inch aluminum wheels. As it happens, the emergency worker in the F-150 was lucky. By gunning the truck and barreling through the rising water, he created a bow wave in front of it, leaving just enough room for air to get through the radiator. The slow moving, careful army trucks, on the other hand, essentially drowned.

But even if rolling through the storm of the century was a matter of dumb luck, it was an impressive night for the Ford F-150 Raptor, still the best-selling vehicle of any type in the nation.

“It’s been the number one selling vehicle for 30 to 35 years,” said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Alec Gutierrez. “Nothing else comes close. They produce diehard loyalists, and someone who buys a Ford pickup tends to stick with a Ford pickup for life.

“They sold about 650,000 in 2012, and outsold the Dodge Ram – which sold just shy of 300,000 – by two to one. The GMC Sierra was close with 575,000 trucks sold. The F-series is a huge seller for small businesses or construction companies, though in terms of towing capacity, it is comparable to the bigger Dodge Ram or GMC Sierra.”

It may have trouble keeping that edge. GM is redesigning its truck lineup and will unveil the rejuvenated fleet in a few months, said Gutierrez. Ford, however, is planning to redesign the F-150 for the 2015 model year, which will begin to arrive at dealers in mid-2014 – giving GM a year-long head start. Still, the allure of the F-150 is so strong that in 2012 the truck outsold the entire car and truck fleets of Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Kia, or Subaru. That is quite a cushion for GM to overcome. (  http://ford.wieck.com/videos/ford-f-150-raptor-svt?query=raptor   )

The F-150 Raptor is a work truck that looks good and can go anywhere and do just about anything one might want a vehicle to do. In Texas – where 20% of the nation’s pickup trucks are sold – it is common to see a line of highly polished and simonized F-150s lined up outside the venue of every high school prom.  During the day, that same truck will carry a half ton of material and tow another three tons of cargo up, down and over any construction site. It comes close to being as capable as a Hummer, Toyota FJ Cruiser, or Jeep Wrangler Rubicon going up, down, or across steep slopes, fording streams, slogging through mud or crawling over tree limbs and rocks.

13 Ford F-150 Raptor - downhill

            Under that relatively water tight hood is a 6.2 liter V-8 engine cranking out 411 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to a six speed, overdrive, automatic transmission, and there are separate hill climb and descent gears. There are four additional power switches in the center console for use with after-market items such as floodlights or tow winches. The truck’s stability control system allows power to be transferred from a wheel which is suspended in the air to an opposing wheel. As a result the F-150 can continue in a relatively straight line regardless of what the trail does.

Inside, the F-150 is more like a large SUV. It features two screens: an eight-inch color, touch screen in the center of the dash and a 4.2-inch information screen directly in front of the steering wheel next to the speedometer.  This small screen shows the trip computer, fuel gauge, and the front mounted camera, which is used to let the driver see rocks and other off-road impediments. The main screen is used for everything else – the navigation system, entertainment, Bluetooth, and the backup camera. For amusement, the truck comes with a CD and DVD player, MP3, iPod and USB ports, satellite radio, and Bluetooth.

13 Ford F-150 Raptor - interior   The leather steering wheel is adjustable –as are the pedals – and contains fingertip cruise and audio controls. The four, 15-volt power outlets are to be expected. But since this is a work truck, Ford added a 115-volt power outlet so you can plug in a computer or other item needing serious power.

The test vehicle had the standard Supercab, with two full doors and half doors for the rear. But even with its slanted roofline, there is leg and head room in the rear for three adults in full-sized, leather seats. A larger, four-door, crew cab is available, adding about 200 pounds to the truck’s three-ton curb weight.  Either way, it’s a comfortable ride since the front seats are adjustable and can be heated or air cooled.

GM’s trucks have been steadily gaining ground on Ford, and Dodge Ram definitely has the edgiest commercials.  But for the time being, the F-150 is still the one to beat.

           13 Ford F-150 Raptor - side

 

2013 ford F-150 SVT Raptor

 

MSRP:                                                                        $50,760

EPA Mileage:                        11 MPG City                          16 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      6,000 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

6.2-Liter, SOHC, iron block, V-8 engine producing 411 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic overdrive transmission with tow mode; 4-wheel drive; hydraulic rack and pinion steering; coil-on-shock, double wishbone, independent front suspension; Hotchkiss-type, non-independent rear suspension; 4-wheel vented disc brakes; roll and stability control; 17-inch cast aluminum wheels; hill descent and off-road mode; skid plates; trailer tow; front seat, mounted side impact airbags; canopy airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio;  CD and DVD player; iPod, MP3 and USB ports; satellite navigation  with 8-inch touch screen; SYNC connectivity and voice activation; 4.2-inch information screen; front and rear cameras; 4 15-volt outlets; one 115-volt outlet; leather, adjustable, heated and air-cooled front seats; tilt and telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls;

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2012 Explorer: Another Big SUV from Ford

August 4, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

            The storm had been building up all day, the dark, angry clouds piling up on each other, crowding out the sky as if waiting to see which member of the celestial gang would attack first. In the end, the signal was given by the rising north wind, which launched one fierce gust after another, making the traffic on the west-bound interstate a white-knuckle game of trying to drive in a straight line while being shoved from the side.

Into this game came the rain, slashing, pouring, and quickly filling the roadway and the small, meandering streams nearby. Depressions in the road were quickly filled, forcing the drivers of small cars and low sports cars to pause as water reached their doors and they wondered if they could roll through the fast-moving puddles.

            But none of that really mattered since we were in a Ford Explorer which seems to have borrowed some tips from Land Rover and treats water, mud, gravel and dry pavement as pretty much the same surface. We rolled through nearly a foot of water in a low area and, at one point, drove around a stuck car by rolling over the curb and through a mud puddle that had been a grassy glade. The large SUV was too heavy to really care about the sideways pushes from the wind, and since the Explorer no longer had its traditionally ugly box shape the car was aerodynamic enough to deflect much of the force of the wind over and around the vehicle.

So we passed the potato chips, had Outlaw Country on the Sirius radio booming from the dozen Sony speakers, and sang along with Robbie Fulks and his scatological Nashville tribute “F… This Town!” All things considered, it was a great road trip.

The guys at Ford Motor Company are allergic to minivans and their designers just won’t draw them. So the company has three versions of stretch SUVs with three rows of seats and a smorgasbord of capabilities and amenities. For those seeking to maintain a bit of status while hauling a carload of kids, there is the MKT from Ford’s Lincoln line (  http://bit.ly/MEbjWC  ). If you don’t care about status but like being a bit different, Ford offers the Flex, (  http://bit.ly/NrKYtr  ) a sort of grown up version of the wooden trucks little boys play with. And now, for those who want a large SUV but would prefer if it had a bit of style and could do more than just be really big, Ford has redesigned its old workhorse, the Explorer.

Like all of the stretch SUVs, the Explorer can haul seven passengers because it puts a third row of seats in what is normally the trunk.  In the Explorer, the rear seats have a certain amount of versatility. The third row has a 60/40 split, and can be operated independently. They can either fold flat or, at the push of a button, disappear into a bin in the floor.  That arrangement leaves you with an SUV which comfortably seats five and has enough storage space for a week’s worth of luggage for everyone.

But if you need all of the seats, it is easy to get into the Explorer’s third row. At a flick of a lever, each of the second row seats will fold up and away, allowing access without having to go through a lot of awkward climbing. The problem, however, is that once you are in the last row you are pretty much stuck there. There is not enough leg room for an adult and kids can’t get out unless they wait till the second row is empty and folded out of the way, or they climb over the rear. In an emergency, either would be difficult. And if the passengers in the second row decide to take a nap and recline their seats, the passengers in the back will really become claustrophobic. The folks in the second row, on the other hand, heave it easy. There is enough head, hip and leg room for a pair of 400-pound pro linebackers or three, relatively normal, 6-footers to relax on a cross country road trip.

But the lack of space in the third row, and its impact on the cargo area are common complaints with the stretch SUVs and the price paid for not being a minivan.

On the positive side, Ford packed a lot into the Explorer for $46,000.

Beginning with its design, the new Explorer seems to have borrowed ideas from Ford’s former relationship with Jaguar/Land Rover. The Explorer no longer looks like a big box. The hood is longer and flatter, a trick from Land Rover which doesn’t make the SUV svelte, but tricks the eye into focusing on the long lean look, rather than its bulging middle. It looks thinner than it is.

As a practical matter, that long wheelbase increases the stability of the Explorer, which handles more like its smaller cousin, the Ford Escape, than like the truck that it really is. Powering the Explorer is a 290 horsepower V-6 engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. That makes it both fast and nimble on the road.

            Off-road, Ford has borrowed additional ideas from Land Rover. In the center of the console is a circular control with pictures of different road conditions: normal, hill climb, downhill assist, sand, and snow. As the pictures imply, the Explorer’s gear settings change to meet the road needs. The downhill assist is interesting in that it is meant to prevent the car from slipping backwards on a steep slope, or when towing a heavy load on a hill.

Unlike the Land Rover or Ford’s heavy duty F-150 truck, however, the Explorer is not really designed for really rugged terrain. It does not have a skid pan protecting its undercarriage and, therefor, it cannot, for example, really handle a rock crawl though the transmission is able to split the torque from the front to the rear or from one side to another so the SUV can continue driving even if one wheel is off the ground. And while it can ford running streams, the design is about eight inches — though the doors are sealed tightly enough for  deeper streams.

The Explorer also has a few of Ford’s latest safety options which can come in handy on long trips or in really bad weather.  Their land changing system monitors the dotted road lines from a camera embedded in the windshield and alerts the driver if you are veering into another lane.  This is useful in a heavy rain storm – particularly at night – when the lanes can be difficult to see. Further, if there is a continued pattern of wandering into adjacent lines, the leather steering wheel vibrates and a little coffee mug on the dash lights up with a note saying it’s time to get some rest.

There are also lights embedded into the rear view mirrors which alert the driver to cars in either side blind spot. While the sight lines on the Explorer are good, a vehicle of this size is going to have spots that are difficult to monitor and the blind spot notice should be considered a necessity rather than an optional add on.

Ford gave some thought to the Explorer’s interior – a reasonable thing to do since that’s where the people are.  To begin with, it’s quiet. The sound proofing is such that not only will it shut out the winds at high speed so you can enjoy a quiet, flute solo from Harold Johnson Sextet’s Moses, it will also block the sound of a riding mower when you’re parked near a garden and just enjoying the view. Ford hasn’t always had that level of quality, but the same sound proofing can now be found in the compact Ford Fiesta at the other end of its product line.

The seats in the Explorer are soft, padded leather, and those in front are powered and can be heated. The door arm rests and dash are padded faux leather with wood accents which give the area a living room feel.  There are bottle or large cup holders in the door which can actually hold an 18-ounce water bottle, and the second row has both a regular power outlet for phones and a 110-volt outlet with a standard plug. If your phone is a mobile hotspot, passengers can plug in a computer and turn the Explorer into a fast moving office.

On the dash, the eight-inch, touch activated, information screen is really easy to use and is divided essentially into four quadrants: Bluetooth, navigation, climate, and audio. Each sector can be activated with a light touch or voice command from Ford’s SYNC system.

If you need to haul both a lot of people and a lot of their stuff, there’s nothing like a minivan. But if a stretch SUV fits your needs, the Explorer may give its Detroit siblings, and the Audi Q-7 and Infiniti JX and run for the money.


2012 Ford Explorer

 

MSRP:                                                                        $46,740

EPA Mileage:                        17 MPG City                          23 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity                                                        5,000 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

3.5-Liter aluminum DOHC engine producing 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; 4-wheel disc brakes; all wheel drive; MacPherson strut independent front suspension;  SR1 independent multilink rear suspension;  rack and pinion steering; traction and stability control; fog lights and high density headlamps; 20-inch, polished aluminum wheels; heated side mirrors; blind spot and lane change monitoring; reverse sensing and rear view camera;  dual front stage and side impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; 390-watt Sony audio with 12 speakers; Bluetooth; CD and MP3 player; USB and iPod ports; tilt & telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; leather seats; powered, heated front seats; fold flat rear seats with push-button stowing for 3rd row; 8-inch color information screen.

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2013 Ford Flex: The Big Boys’ Toy Bus

August 4, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

            Let’s say you need a vehicle with room for seven passengers and space for a lot of stuff – but you really don’t want to spend several years with a minivan.  In the style category, you’re comfortable with an SUV, though you really don’t want to drive what looks and feels like a small truck.

            In that case, the guys with the crayons at Ford think they have the wheels for you.  It’s called the Flex, and it’s hard to categorize.

It’s 16 feet long and just five feet, eight-inches tall with a coffin-flat roof  – giving it a longer, lower silhouette than the seven-passenger, stretch-SUVs it competes with: the Lincoln MKT, Infiniti JX or Audi Q-7.

            Nor does it look like an SUV. The guys in Ford’s design playpen never got past the wooden Tinker-toy stage and, as a result, put together a similar set of  rectangles on 20-inch wheels with the rounded front and flat sides and roof. The look is distinct and, depending on what toys you had as a kid, can either feel vaguely familiar and comfortable, or just look like a rolling box.

            Underneath that broad, flat, front hood Ford offers a choice in power plants. The standard engine and the one provided in the test car, is a 3.5-liter V-6 with twin independent, variable camshaft timing cranking out 287 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. That is adequate once the Flex gets on the road. But it is sluggish and the car struggles to climb steep hills or pass another vehicle in a hurry. If you need power in a hurry, it helps to slip from automatic into manual mode and downshift for extra torque. But the car always feels underpowered, and is in trouble if the Flex is carrying a full passenger load and attempting to tow its designed limit of 4,500 pounds.

The alternative is Ford’s V-6 EcoBoost engine, which provides 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque – which is enough juice to allow the Flex to meet its automotive potential. The smaller engine drinks 87 octane fuel and carries an EPA rating of 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 23 miles per gallon on the highway. The EcoBoost on the other hand, will only drink the costlier premium brew.

Perhaps because of its low stance and all wheel drive, the Flex drives like a long sedan instead of a small bus. At speeds pushing triple digits – which you shouldn’t try except with a Jeep SRT8, Cadillac SRX, or Porsche Cayenne – one never feels as if you are trapped in a runaway train on really old tracks.

Riding in the flex is like traveling in a small living room, and the extended length of these stretch SUVs adds to the initial feeling of spaciousness.  For those in the first two rows, travel is a continuous comfort, with enough leg and headroom for four pro football players and a normal-sized friend. The seats are wide enough for 300 pounders and thickly padded. The front seats can also be heated and are power operated. The second row seats are not adjustable, though the backs of these seats can recline enough for a comfortable nap. To reach the rear seats requires one to manually fold the second row out of the way – and once someone is in the third row they are stuck there. The seats are comfortable, but there is little leg room and best used for kids or small adults who are not claustrophobic.

   Ford packed in more amenities than you might expect from a $41,000 SUV. On the safety side, the Flex uses side-mounted radar to alert the driver to vehicles in either blind spot by blinking a lite in the relevant side view mirror. In manual mode, the gear shift in the center console does not move. Instead, one pushes an up or down button on the side of the gear shift. It works quickly and effortlessly, though it takes some time to get used to shifting gears in that manner.

It has the SYNC voice activated central command system to run its extensive entertainment network. SYNC takes some getting used to: the commands are not necessarily intuitive and it takes time to either memorize the appropriate commands and derivations or luck into them. For those who can’t seem to work with the computerized SYNC robot, there is also an eight-inch color touch-screen and fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel which work quite nicely.

For sound, there is an in-dash CD player, as well as connections for MP3, iPods, and USB drives, and satellite radio.

The 2013 Flex will stand out from the stretch SUV pack because, well, it doesn’t look like an SUV. Whether it’s perceived as a hearse and ignored, or viewed as a neat, grown-up, toy for boys will be a matter of taste. It will, however, make its mark in the competition for seven-passenger, non-minivan vehicles.

 

 

2013 Ford Flex

 

MSRP:                                                                        $41,280

EPA Mileage:                        17 MPG City                          23 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   22 MPG Mixed

Towing Capacity:                                                      4,471 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

3.5-Liter, aluminum, V-6 engine producing 287 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque; front wheel drive; 6-speed automatic transmission; MacPherson strut front suspension; Multilink, independent rear suspension; power rack & pinion steering;  traction and stability control; 20-inch machined aluminum wheels; adaptive cruise control; fog lights; Halogen headlamps; dual stage front airbags;  seat-mounted, side impact bags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Bluetooth; SYNC voice activation system; CD player; USB, iPod, and MP3 ports; tilt and telescoping leather steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; Sony sound system with 10 speakers; leather seats; powered, heated front seats; fold flat 2nd and 3rd row seats.

 

 

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Getting an Edge from Ford

July 8, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

I was putting groceries into the back of the SUV when I noticed the teenager loading groceries behind another SUV parked two spots away staring at me.  She said something and her mother poked her head around the rear of their car, smiled broadly, and gave her daughter a high five.

I thought it odd, shrugged it off, and got into the driver’s seat. That’s when the mother sauntered over, looked into the passenger side window and said “we’ve got an Edge, too!”

The influence of Derek Jeter, captain of the New York Yankees, and the tag line to the Ford Edge commercials he stars in (  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qpem4xp9upQ  )   is, apparently, more ubiquitous in the New York metropolitan area than the car itself.  I did notice, however, that the Edge she and her daughter were shopping in was red, not white and black Yankee pinstripe.

But catchy ad lines aside, the Edge is a mid sized, well stocked SUV that’s easy to look at and easy to like.  Stylistically, it’s hard to characterize. The front is short and stubby, with a wide-mouthed grill that seems to be smiling and blunts the more common long, flowing silhouette usually seen on popular SUVs from the Nissan Murano to the upscale Lexus RX or Porsche Cayenne. The effect, though, is an SUV that fits comfortably with modern styles without copying or looking boxy.

Behind that chrome grin is a four-cylinder, 2.0-liter engine which produces just 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. That is more than enough to give pep to this two-ton vehicle – I was half way through a very off-key rendition of an old Temptations hit song before I realized the speedometer had nudged past 90 miles per hour. There had been no engine whine or air noise to provide audible clues that my license was in danger, and its low, wide stance and traction control let it handle winding roads more like a sedan than an SUV. It is also helpful that the four cylinder engine drinks regular unleaded gasoline and carries an EPA estimate of 30 miles per gallon on the highway, and can tow up to1,500 pounds.

For those who need their SUV for heavier duty work, however, there is a 3.7-liter, V-6 option providing 305 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque and a towing capacity of 2,000 pounds. The tradeoff is the bigger engine is thirsty – its mileage rating is  17 MPG in city driving and just 23 MPG on the open road.

            Inside, the Edge has the amenities one might expect from a $38,000 vehicle. The décor is a mix of plastic and leather, and the feel is one of unlimited space. The windows are extra large with narrow, unobtrusive, center posts. The Edge did not, however have a sun roof – which would have augmented the open-space feeling.

The leather wrapped steering wheel tilts, telescopes, can be heated, and has fingertip controls for Bluetooth, cruise control, audio, and voice commands. The seats are wide, thickly padded leather and, at the touch of a button, the front seats can be adjusted for comfort and the rear seats can fold flat.  The front set can also be heated.

The center console is wide enough for the passengers to share the arm rest, and the cup holders in front can hold a pair of Big Gulps. There is a wide, eight-inch color touch screen and easy to see control surface which is backlit with soft blue lighting. As a result, one doesn’t have to go searching for controls when driving at night. Behind the console is an open-sided storage area which can easily hold a small purse and cell phones, and has a power charging outlet.

Under the arm rest is a foot deep storage bin with a second power outlet, a pair of USB ports for music, a second power outlet, iPod, MP3 and video connections. For entertainment, the Edge also has a CD player, Sirius Satellite radio, or can utilize Bluetooth to play music stored on a smartphone.  Whatever medium is used, the music comes through a 390-watt Sony sound system with 12 speakers that are easily capable of enveloping the cabin in your noise of choice or providing amplified boom for the average block party.  The system can be activated either manually through the touch screen or console dials, or using the Ford SYNC voice commands. These vocal instructions, however, take some getting used to. The voice system is not necessarily intuitive and the SYNC robot lady is not especially helpful. I never could get her to increase the volume so the Temptations could sing louder than me. It takes time to memorize the command manual which, frankly, shouldn’t be necessary.

The rear section has more than a yard of leg room space, making it a comfortable place for tall passengers to stretch and, when parked, enough floor space for toddlers to play in. The seats are adjustable and can lay back far enough for a comfortable nap. For hauling larger cargo, the seats will conveniently fold flat at the push of a button.

Overall, the Edge is a sound set of wheels, though at that price, it is going to have tough competition from Hyundai and Nissan in particular. Whether Jeter’s acclaim on the baseball field will help in markets throughout the country where the Yankees are unloved competitors remains to be seen.

2012 Ford Edge

           

MSRP:                                                                        $38,910

EPA Mileage:                        21 MPG City                          30 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      1,500 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.0 – Liter DOHC, 4-cylinder, aluminum block engine producing 240 horsepower and  270 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission;  power rack and pinion steering; MacPherson strut front suspension; Independent rear suspension; power assisted disc brakes; front wheel drive; dual stage front airbags; side impact and safety canopy airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius Satellite Radio; CD and MP3 player; USB and iPod connections; Bluetooth; navigation system with 8-inch touch screen; tilt and telescoping, leather steering wheel with  fingertip audio, voice, and cruise controls; SYNC voice command system; powered leather seats; heated front seats and steering wheel; power liftgate; fold flat rear seats.

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Three Stretch Crossovers: Seating Seven Without a Minivan

July 8, 2012

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            There is nothing like a minivan.

If you’ve got a large family and have to haul kids, strollers, soccer and football gear, and assorted levels of first aid kits these miniature buses tend to fit the bill. And if you’re an empty nester who likes to take road trips with friends, the minivan will get older bones around the country in plodding, genteel comfort.

They’re great – unless you can’t stand the sedate image, the slow speed, the boxy looks, and would prefer to walk in too-tight shoes than be caught dead in one of the stodgy, kid-carrying, miniature buses.

For folks like that – and there are many – the auto companies have stretched their crossovers, borrowed bottoms from trucks and come out with seven-passenger SUVs. These are marketed as minivans without the middle-age, sedate suburban look, and they sell as logical extensions to standard SUVs designed to meet the needs of expanding families.

But there are tradeoffs when you move from a small bus to a long car. The primary function of the minivan is to hold a lot and then look as good as possible, while the primary function of the stretch SUV is to look good while carrying what will still fit.  In addition, those whose priority is a good-looking SUV generally want a vehicle that drives more like a sport machine and less like a bus. Balancing the needs of cargo and ego can be difficult.

Here are three distinct approaches to designing these long sets of wheels and, therefore, they will appeal to different households. Audi, with its Q-7, pushes technology and style; Infiniti promotes the safety systems in its JX 35; and Lincoln says nothing about what’s in the MKT but suggests it’s a step up in status to own one.

The Audi Q-7

No matter how often it airs, the Audi commercial grabs one’s attention.

There is an old codger, reminiscent of Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” reminiscing about the one that escaped his hook and got away. It doesn’t take long to realize his hook is on a tow truck, his busy season is during the fierceNew Englandwinter, and the Audi is so sure-footed on snow and ice that the cars deliberately mock him.

You have to smile as he plaintively yells “Quattro!” as an Audi sports car with their four-wheel drive zips by in a cloud of swirling snowflakes. You smile, that is, if you’re in the market for a sports car. What if you have a big family, need a vehicle that seats seven and don’t particularly want a minivan? In that case, what can Quattro do for you?

Audi’s answer to that is the Q-7, a stretched, crossover SUV intended to haul a young family of seven, or a smaller group with a lot of room for carry-on gear. While it is not designed to race along and mock the tow truck operators – or other motorists – it is likely to keep a family moving in style regardless of weather and road conditions. Audi does pay attention to exterior looks. But then, with a sticker price of $65,000, it should.

Outside, the Q-7 has the soft curves and low roof line associated with sleek crossovers such as the Infiniti FX, indicating Audi puts as much stock in design and appearance as in function and performance. Under its long, sloping hood is a supercharged V-6 cranking out 333 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. That power plant doesn’t turn a big vehicle into a racing car, but it actually gives a sporty feel to the Q and, on the open road, makes it easy to forget that this is still a truck. And while it isn’t prudent to take the speedometer of a small truck into triple digits – even one with a four-star rollover rating – the Q-7 is actually capable of easily getting your license revoked.

Inside, where the masses will reside, the Q-7 offers a lot.

The dashboard was thoughtfully designed with a small screen between the tachometer and speedometer which shows what functions are being utilized at any given time – heated seats, the radio, navigation system, climate, etc. Using fingertip controls the driver can change radio stations, alter the temperature in the rear seats, or zoom in or out of the navigation screen. The design allows the driver to keep his or her eyes on the road and not turn away looking for the appropriate buttons and dials.

For entertainment, the Q-7 has Sirius satellite radio and a CD player. There is an iPod connection inside the glove box, but no USB or MP3 port. The car does have Bluetooth, however, and can easily access the 1,000 or so songs stored in your Android Smartphone. The entertainment system can also be accessed from the rear, so the passengers don’t have to necessarily bother the driver.

Its leather seats are wide and thickly padded, and the front pair are power adjustable and can be either heated or air cooled.  The second row of seats actually has room for three passengers – two tall adults and a child in the middle whose legs will straddle the hump. The front and second row arm rests are wide and padded, and all doors have wide storage bins and bottle holders.

As with most stretched, seven-passenger vehicles, there is a trade-off to be made between the number of seats and the amount of available cargo room. That is the case here, where the third row, when not in use, provides more than half the cargo space. Using the third row for infants leaves little room for multiple baby carriages and other infant paraphernalia – as well as the stuff the rest of the family lugs around.

In the Q-7, the heavy, manually operated, third row of seats can be pulled up by either climbing into the trunk or folding down the second row seats and pushing them forward. There is not a lot of space between the rear of the second row seat, and the car’s door frame, so access can be awkward.  Once the third row is set up, however, they are large, deep, and comfortable. But there is absolutely no leg room. That means the third row works well for my daughter’s year old twins in their rear-facing child seats, but not for the older kids or unpopular in-laws.

The key controls are set far back in the center console, making it necessary for the driver to look away from the road to find entertainment and climate settings. At some point, one can pretty much memorize the settings and operate by feel. But there is a learning curve for that trick and it is not the safest way to operate.

The Infiniti JX35

Then, along came the guys from Infiniti with the new JX35.

There is a lot riding on this new, stretch SUV considering the role Nissan/Infiniti has played in revolutionizing the SUV market.  Their stylish Nissan Murano set a style trend in SUVs that’s been obvious in every major brand for the last decade. The upscale model, the muscular-looking, five-passenger, Infiniti FX -50 can go head to head in terms of ride, looks, and interior appointments with any brand.

In addition, the FX models always had heavy duty power plants enabling them to run with or ahead of the competition just as Infiniti’s sport coups, the G and IPL, readily ran with their contemporary BMWs and Audis. While one doesn’t expect a truck to be quite as versatile and maneuverable as an SUV, the JX —  the company’s first venture into the seven-passenger market – was still expected to dazzle.

But it doesn’t, though not for lack of trying.

The New York Times’ Lawrence Ulrich absolutely hated this car ( http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/automobiles/autoreviews/even-with-all-those-seats-the-driver-is-left-out.html?_r=1 ). But having high hopes dashed and the automotive equivalent of a broken heart needn’t generate such hostility.

In its national advertising, Infiniti touts the JX’ electronic safety systems in this $52,000 SUV, including one which detects objects behind the car while it is moving in reverse, and automatically applies the brakes.  In the ads, the smart-car stops the JX before it hits a child pushing his toy car. As with any new technology, it needs a little work. When I tried this in my driveway, the JX smart system stopped the car before it backed into my wife’s Honda.  But the system went dumb when it came to the two-foot high, child-sized birdbath – much to the annoyance of an assortment of sparrows, chickadees, and cardinals out for an afternoon splash.

There are a host of electronic gadgets, however. Their lane warning system, detects when you are veering outside the dotted lines, even if they are covered by several inches of fast-moving rainwater. The sight lines aren’t the best, but the car’s blind-spot warning system alerts drivers to cars they can’t see. There is also “intelligent” cruise control, which senses slower cars ahead and adjusts the speed to maintain a safe distance behind the vehicle until it speeds up or moves out of the way.

Infiniti has also borrowed a page from GM’s OnStar system, and is offering its own, live, “Personal Assistant”. In addition to automatically notifying nearby emergency personnel in the event of a crash, or immobilizing a stolen car, the Assistant can make hotel or restaurant reservations or provide step-by-step directions, among other services.

Under the Infiniti’s hood is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine providing 265 horsepower and 248 pound feet of torque.  That is significantly less power than the Audi Q-7, and not enough to stand out from the motorized crowd. It is, however, more than enough for an efficient, dependable SUV. That power was appreciated on a trip with the grand children to the New Jersey shore (Snookie was not invited).

The Atlantic Ocean beach at Seaside Heights was off limits to the little ones – and everyone else. There was a fierce storm far out to sea sending high waves crashing onshore – which meant the little ones could not play in the sand. In minutes, the streets of Seaside Heights were overwhelmed, with water covering the curbs and lawns and lapping against the summer rentals and year-round residences alike. None of it affected the JX, which rolled through fast moving, eight inches of water with aplomb – providing the kind of safe, secure ride one seeks in a large SUV.

Outside, the JX looks like what it is – a stretched SUV. In that stretching, however, it lost some of the distinctive flair which has characterized Infiniti vehicles. It’s pleasant to look at, but nothing special to make heads swivel.  The JX has the Infiniti trademark look, with a trim silhouette tapering towards the rear.  There is a single, sunroof over the front seats, and long, wide windows for the first and second rows, which actually opens. There is a smaller, viewing window next to the third row, but it does not move.

There was a thought among Infiniti’s designers that if you had a third row of seats, everyone should be able to actually use them. As a result, the JX provides about a yard of space between the first and second row of seats, but a bit less than a foot between the third and second row. The middle row, however, can slide 18 inches, which allows adjustments to fit most adults in all rows. That tapered roof does cut down on the headroom, though, and would prove annoying to folks pushing six feet in height.

In terms of amenities, the JX has heated leather seats as well as heated steering wheel, which can be appreciated in cold weather or when there are sore joints.  There is faux wood grain paneling on the doors, dash, and center console, which looks almost real.

The Bose sound system with 13 speakers is superb and, more importantly, easy to use.

The navigation system has an eight-inch screen with a split view backup camera: one is looking behind the car, and the other provides a 360 view all around the car.  It allows you to change the view so when you are backing up, you can actually look along the passenger side of the car to see how close to the curb you are. If you use it, it is more reliable than the robot-powered safety brakes.

There are thoughtful storage spaces in the JX. The arm rest in the center console is nine inches wide, and deep enough too hold a small pocketbook. There is also a nine-inch-deep storage bin under the trunk, which is pretty small if the third row is in use.

One would be hard pressed to get a couple of baby strollers and luggage in there, though the storage bin is handy for smaller items.

Lincoln MKT

            Lincoln’s advertising is interesting.

They have replaced the campaign to convince upscale, male motorists that owning a Lincoln is the “smart” thing to do, and replaced it with a campaign aimed at upwardly mobile women and positioning the brand as the next, logical step up the social ladder.  What the ads have in common is they deal with the image and less than five seconds on the car itself.

Which is interesting, since Lincoln’s latest alphabet offering, the MKT, is a competitive entry in the stretch SUV class. And with a sticker price of $57,000, it’s priced right in the middle of this trio of seven-seaters. Lincoln has long viewed itself as the understated alternative to the flashier Cadillac line. With the MKT, Lincoln’s designers are attempting to break from that reserved, and sometimes boring, mold. Its standard, recessed, oval insignia has been pushed outward at the end of a long, sloping, pointed hood and splits two long, slim grills. The effect recalls the look of a predatory bird’s beak. And while the MKT is a big car, the long, trimmer look – with bigger windows and less metal on the sides – is a break from the tank look of earlier models.

Under that long hood is the most powerful of the stretch SUV power plants. The MKT has a 3.5-liter engine producing 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed, automatic transmission with paddle shifts for a manual mode. Even though the stretch SUV is a heavy, truck based vehicle, the MKT engine provides the type of fast starts and instant surge associated with the best of Lincoln’s, Infiniti’s, and Audi’s sedans.

None of these vehicles is especially frugal when it comes to gasoline usage, however.  According to EPA estimates, the Lincoln and Audi Q-7 are each rated at 16 miles per gallon in city driving, and 23 and 22 MPG respectively on the highway; while the Infiniti was nominally better at 18 MPG in the city and 23 MPG on the open road.  Given the margin of error with the EPA estimates, the gas rates are indistinguishable and any differences will be the direct result of individual driving styles.

Inside, Lincoln’s designers had both comfort and accessibility in mind. There is a deep storage bin under the floor behind the third row of seats which increases the usually meager storage area. At the touch of a button, however, that rear row will fold into the bin, leaving a large, level cargo area.  In an unusual design departure, the center console between the front two seats can, as an option, extend through the second row This provides arm rests and convenient storage – as an option, it can contain a cooler.  But choosing this extension means eliminating the center seat, though you can squeeze three kids into the rear.

There is no lack of convenient gadgets, either. For entertainment, there is a 700-watt THX II audio system with 14 speakers which comes closest to a home theatre system. It has Sirius satellite radio and navigation system, as well as iPod, MP3 and USB ports, and the Bluetooth system handles both phones and smartphone audio.

All of the leather seats are power activated. A row of buttons on the side wall in the trunk allows you to fold the third row flat or stow them under the floor. The button on the side panel also allows you to close the cargo door. This is an improvement over the Audi and Infiniti, where the closing button is on the rear door itself – the Audi’s button is 7.5 feet above the ground – and the seats all have to be manually moved to get in or out.

While that is convenient, there is still a limit as to how much you can store in the longer Lincoln.  A pair of strollers, for example, doesn’t leave much room for luggage.

In the end, there is no definitive rule governing what will meet a family’s esthetic and practical needs. The stretch SUV with its three rows of seats and more attractive profile will definitely fit the household needs in many garages.

But in time, some of these larger families may well wish they had opted for practicality instead of appearances and bought the mini bus.

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A Hybrid Faceoff: Kia Optima and Ford Fusion

April 11, 2012


By Roger Witherspoon

Nobody knew what to make of the Toyota Prius when it first hit the American roadways.

It was an odd looking little car. It wasn’t ugly or a plain sub-compact box with wheels. But it wasn’t a styling gem, but wasn’t unattractive, either. The Prius carved its own styling niche at a time when Toyota was selling hybrid efficiency, not looks.

But times have changed. The Prius has become more stylish to look at and more comfortable ride in. And its success has spawned competition – and not just at the sub-compact level. The Cadillac Escalade hybrid anchors the opposite end of the fuel efficient spectrum and, if you want high end, sports car efficiency, there is the Porsche Panamera hybrid offering relative fuel efficiency at more than150 miles per hour.

But for the average household looking for hybrid efficiency in a family sedan, there are now significant options stretching from Korea, with the Kia Optima; to Detroit, where Ford has rolled out the Fusion Hybrid.

            With the Optima, Kia continues its tradition of offering a lot in a car for less. At $32,000, the stylish, midsized, Optima sedan meets a lot of family needs. On the outside, the Optima looks like a sport sedan, with a wide racing grill and black side air scoops which makes it the type ofcarStatePolice just love to follow. And there is good reason for cops to keep an eye on the Optima: It is such a quiet, well shielded car that there is virtually no wind sound in the cabin even when the car is rolling on 17-inch wheels past 100 miles per hour. The Optima makes it real easy to lose your license, even though it has a modest power plant and is sluggish when taking off.

Under the hood, the Optima has a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine producing just 166 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque. It is paired with an electric motor producing an additional 40.2 horsepower and 151 pound-feet torque which. The combined power plant produces a lot of horsepower for a relatively light-weight vehicle. But the combined 300+ pound-feet of torque, going directly to the wheels, allows the Optima to be extremely responsive once it gets going

In the fuel department, the Optima Hybrid carries an EPA rating of 35 miles per gallon in stop-and-go driving, and 40 miles per gallon on the highway. While the EPA estimates are usually exaggerated, the test car got 38 miles per gallon in mixed driving. .  While most full hybrids allow the car to be driven in electric-only mode for just the first 25 or so miles per hour, the Optima can drive on just its electric power plant at speeds up to 62 miles per hour.  That is why the stats for this hybrid are reversed, with higher gas savings on the highway than in the city where frequent accelerations lower the performance.

            Kia did not cut costs in the interior features, either, beginning with the wood accents and the double, powered sunroof. One would expect quality, ventilated leather seats in a $32,000 car, as well as the ability to heat the pair in front. But the Optima goes one better by offering heated and air conditioned front seats as well as heated rear seats – an option usually found only in high end luxury cars – and a heated steering wheel.

For entertainment there is a 7-inch touch screen for the easy to use navigation systems and the clear backup camera.  The Optima has Sirius satellite radio, which also provides the navigation system with traffic and weather updates. The package is rounded off with USB, iPod and MP3 connections and Bluetooth for cell phone or audio use. The entertainment, Bluetooth, and cruise controls can all be accessed via fingertip controls on the steering wheel.

But you can’t get to Korea without passing Detroit, where the folks at Ford have something to say. You need a large parking lot to handle all the competitors in the midsized sedan category, since all the car makers have at least one entry in the segment. The question they all faced was how to carve a niche and manage to stand out in the crowd chasing the Toyota Camry?

For the folks with the crayons at Ford, the answer was the Fusion, a car with its own distinct styling characteristics, including a wide, three-layered grill. And if you put together a checklist of the most popular items or enduring features in the Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, or Honda Accord, for example, you could check off virtually all of them in the Fusion.

For those interested in fuel economy, there is the Fusion Hybrid. The Fusion Hybrid’s gasoline engine itself is rather anemic, a 2.5-liter, four cylinder engine producing 152 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque. Its electric motor cranks out 35 horsepower, and 106 pound-feet of torque. Together, it’s a small power plant, and you are not going to do any drag racing in a fusion. But then, you don’t get a hybrid if you have a lead foot.

This is a full, dual motor system, meaning you can drive up to about 47 miles per hour on just the 40 horse power electric motor. That’s faster than any other hybrid on the road except the Optima. But Ford’s electric motor can accelerate at higher speeds than the Optima without engaging the gasoline engine for support. They accomplish this with a form of battery overdrive system.  As a rule, hybrids never completely run down their batteries – there is about a 15% to 20% reserve. With the fusion, there is an “Eco boost” which taps the reserve for additional power on acceleration, power provided on most hybrids by engaging the gasoline engine.

That helps explain why the Fusion Hybrid has an EPA rating of 41 miles per gallon in stop-and-go driving – 10 MPG higher than the Toyota Camry Hybrid – and  36 miles per gallon on the highway. The Fusion also encourages you to drive in the most economic fashion with an animated set of gauges in the form of green leaves which wave in an electronic breeze when happiest.

Inside, the Fusion has a powered sunroof over the front, and both the seats and doors are padded with leather, thick, attractive, double stitched leather. The front seats can be heated and are power adjusted.  The rear seats, while not heated, have enough leg room for passengers who stretch well over six feet. 

For entertainment, the Fusion uses the SYNC communications system, with its voice or touch activated screen, audio, and cell phone link. The navigation system is an easy one to use, with traffic and weather warnings and rerouting provided by the satellite radio service. The backup screen has one of the clearest cameras on the market, with guidelines to help motorists judge how far they are from an obstruction.

The Fusion offers Sirius satellite radio with a 12-speaker Sony sound system, as well as USB, iPhone and MP3 connections. There is also Bluetooth for phone or audio connections. The large battery also powers a 110 volt regular power outlet to plug in a computer or game console, in addition to the regular power outlets for cell phones.

Whether or not the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Kia Optima Hybrid can overtake the hybrid version of the leading Toyota Camry remains to be seen. But as they energize their batteries, they are likely to give the leader a run for the money.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

 

MSRP:                                                                        $32,250

EPA Mileage:                        35 MPG City                          40 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.4-Liter aluminum DOHC 4-cylinder engine producing 166 horsepower and 154 pound/feet of torque; electric motor with 270-vlt Lithium-polymer battery producing 40 horsepower and 151 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; stability and traction controls; anti-lock brakes; 17-inch alloy wheels; independent front and rear suspension; fog lights and high density headlights; backup camera; dual front airbags; front seat side airbags; full-length side curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Infinity Audio system with 8 speakers; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; CD player; Bluetooth phone and audio; voice-activated entertainment system; navigation system with satellite traffic and weather; leather wrapped, tilt and telescoping, steering wheel with fingertip audio, phone and cruise controls; heated steering wheel; heated rear seats; heated or air cooled front seats; powered leather seats; powered sunroof.

2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid

 

MSRP:                                                                        $32,820

EPA Mileage:                        41 MPG City                          36 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.5-Liter, aluminum DOHC 4-cylinder engine producing 156 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque; electric motor with 275-volt Nickel-metal hydride battery producing 35 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque; front wheel drive; independent front and rear suspension; rack and pinion steering; 4-wheel power disc brakes; anti-locking brake system; stability and traction control; 17-inch, 15-spoke aluminum wheels; side and curtain front and rear air bags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Sony audio system with 12 speakers; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; CD player; Bluetooth phone and audio; voice-activated entertainment system; navigation system with satellite traffic and weather; leather wrapped, tilt and telescoping steering with fingertip audio, phone and cruise controls; heated front seats; powered sunroof.

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