Entries in Vehicle Reviews (2)

Thursday
Apr302009

Ford Fusion Hybrid Review

We were invited to attend the Ford Fusion Hybrid “1000 Miles On A Single Tank” event in Alexandria Virginia, with the idea that we would drive one of the media cars back to Detroit.  Fortunately the schedule worked out and we had a great time.

Ford has really made an effort to distance its self from GM and Chrysler not only in refusing to  take Government money, GM is routinely referred to as Government Motors or Obama Motors, and most people expect Chrysler to just go away, but also in its car lineup, pushing hybrids and other gas efficient vehicles and technologies.

The event was produced in the D.C. area for a number of reasons, but all the publicity in front of the nations lawmakers certainly had to be at the top of the list.  Ford brought in two big hitters for the event coming from two different worlds.  The driving part of the event was lead by Wayne Gerdes, the man who not only coined the term hypermiling, but is thought to be the Yoda of that world.  The other person brought in was Carl Edwards, he of the Roush-Fenway NASCAR team.  While Carl's stint in the cars was brief, he was busy racing at Talladega on Sunday, and after the horrific crash he was involved it was amazing he was even there.  Before Carl got into the car he got a driving lesson in one of the Fusion Hybrid media cars with Wayne, you can see that video here.  Wayne had high praise about Carl and was amazed at how quickly he picked up on the techniques.  Carl was the guy who put the car over the top for 1000 mile challenge, but his real value to the team was the PR he did for the event, with the media, a twitter chat, and a visit to some influential Senators on Capital Hill.

At the end of the event, which ended about 5:30AM on Tuesday the team and the car had covered 1445 miles working out to an average of 81.5MPG.

We had the opportunity to drive one of the two loops that they were using for the event, one that took you right up to Mount Vernon.  Driving at the posted speed limits in one of the media cars, and using some the the techniques that Wayne taught the other members of the driving team, we were able to average 52.5MPG.  For the event in the official car, driving the posted speed limit wasn't always done, they rarely drove that quickly, rather they were doing everything possible to maximize fuel economy.

One of the things that we wanted to see in attending this event was, what "real world" results could be had.  What could the average person pull off in "normal" driving without going to the extremes that were required to achieve the 81.5 MPG of the driving team.  While certainly trying to maximize the use of the battery and the electric part of the drive system is important, the largest factor in achieving the numbers was simply accelerating a bit lighter, being more conscious of distances so we weren't on and off the throttle or jamming on the brakes, just to have to go right back the accelerator pedal.  While 52.5 pales compared to what the team did, I think it's pretty realistic in what you could do in daily driving on surface streets, if you tried just a little bit.  We should note that our drive was done with the air conditioner on, it was kept off in the official car as the pull of the system on the drive systems makes a substantial difference in mileage.

For the drive home, again, we wanted to see what "normal" drivers might be able to achieve.  We made no real efforts to maximize mileage rather we prefer our cool, conditioned air, the audio system on and at a higher volume, Sirius channels 24 & 35 for most of the drive, and once we got to Ohio, mostly continuous use of the cruise control.  Just as a note, anyone who tells you that using the cruise control gets you better mileage is wrong.  The first part of our drive in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania we drove without the cruise engaged, but everything else the same and achieved 40.5 MPG as you can see in this photo.  Yes the cruise is engaged in the photo, but hey we are taking a pic going down the highway at speed, so cut us SOME slack!


At the end of the trip we averaged 38.6 MPG, not as good as I had hoped, but still in both city and highway driving, in what I would term a "real world driver" in "real world driving", we beat the official EPA numbers of 41 city and 36 highway, so I would call that a win for the car.

Lets dive in and talk a little bit more about the 2010 Fusion Hybrid as a car.

LOOKS:

From the front straight on and front three quarter views, the designers at Ford have done a good job with this car.  It looks sharp, with a bit of an edge, and you can see the merger of the US razor blade grill design with elements of the front end designs we've seen on European Fords like the Mondeo, Fiesta and Ka in the last couple years.  Other views of the car from the side, rear three quarters, and a straight rear view, aren't as striking, but they aren’t bad, just not as inspired.

INTERIOR:

Ford is going a good job with their interiors of late.  The materials in this vehicle were as good, if not better than the ones in the Flex we tested back in March.  The leather of the seats might not have been as supple, but the dash and center stack were of better materials, no question.  The charcoal black leather with the white stitching looked nice and had a good feel to it.


At 5’10” there was plenty of rear seat leg room, even with the seat all the way back.  

From the drivers seat everything falls nicely into place.  The dash which for now is unique to the Fusion Hybrid, but should eventually make it’s way into other vehicles, is striking, and informative without giving you flashbacks to those cheesy “Tokyo By Night” dashes that were popular among many manufactures from the mid 80’s to the early 90’s.  It is configurable from very simple information displayed to laying out everything.  We chose to leave the settings showing us everything just to get the maximum effect.

The most informative,and some would argue the most important piece of the instrumentation is the instant fuel economy slider.  Just paying attention to this can make a big difference in your overall fuel economy.  The other is the power meter where you can see not only the use of the electric motor, but also gage how far into the power you are dipping.  Using these two gages are key to achieving the highest mileage.

Bob Ross would also approve of the dash since if you do what the system thinks is a good job of driving in an eco friendly manner, it will give you more leaves and show you a truly happy tree.


 

The car came with the full bore Sync system and given that this is a hybrid it had an additional screen that gave you a real time view of the power flows in the system.  The turn by turn directions worked flawlessly which was good since we haven’t been in the DC area in about 25 years and never driven it.  Navigating traffic reading off the printed Google Maps directions would have worked, just been a bit more stressful in some of the high traffic areas.  The only thing that would have been nice with the Sat Nav system would be the ability to change the voice.  Every over the counter $100+ GPS device will let you do this, if it was possible here, we couldn’t find it.

Lastly the car came equipped with the blind spot sensor.  It is a light in the side view mirrors that lights up if it detects someone in your blind spot.  No audible tone, which WAS appreciated, just enough of a light for you to notice to take a second look.  It worked well.

DRIVING:

If you are a sales person, or anyone who spends extended time on the highway, then you will like this car.  It drives down the highway nicely.  It’s a car you can put in a 1000 mile day and not feel worn out.  When we stopped overnight in Pennsylvania it wasn’t because we were tired from driving, more the fact that we had been up since 5AM to catch the 7AM flight down to DC then spend the day covering the event before we could start to head back at 9PM.  No need to push it since I’m sure the people at Ford wouldn’t want us rolling down the highway if the dash began to look like this.


The drivers seat is comfortable, it strikes a nice balance where it’s firm, but not so much that you constantly move around to find a comfortable spot.  The interior is quiet, not tomb like, but using the hands free system with Sync, people you are talking to on the phone will have no problem hearing you, nor you them.

While our highway driving was limited to the interstates, there were enough curvy mountain areas to get an idea of how the car feels at speed.  It always felt planted with little body roll.  This will make the hypermilers happy since one of their key strategies to is take curves as fast as possible.  This car isn’t a BMW M3 by any means, but it’s closer to that than say a Buick or a Lincoln of old.  It definitely drives better than a Toyota Camry, which it, not a Prius or the new Honda Insight, is it’s direct competitor.  More on this in a minute.  The car may be a bit shy of European standards in ride and handling, then again what the Euros would call correct, Americans would call firm, rough or stiff, hence this compromise.  I’ll say it again, this is a car you might enjoy driving and piling on the miles, rather than be an automotive appliance to get you from point A to point B in of which the Prius is a FIVE STAR example of.

I’m told that Carl Edwards liked the car enough that he bought one with his own cash, at full price, that’s not a bad endorsement.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

We will come out and say it directly, we are skeptics when it comes to hybrids.  At the end of the day we feel that clean diesel technology is a better, cheeper, faster and more eco friendly way to build vehicles that return high MPG.

If you look at Ford’s own stable of cars in Europe, the Mondeo, the closest car in terms of size to the Fusion, with a 2.0 liter Duratorq TDCi ECOnetic motor gets 45 MPG, the new Fiesta with the 1.6 liter Duratorq TDCi motor gets 63.5MPG.  The costs to build and maintain diesels are far less than than the battery electric hybrids we are seeing now, and much less complex.

That said the US Government are pushing all car manufactures in the battery electric hybrid direction via incentives to manufactures and the consumers, Ford seeing the writing on the wall has decided that it’s easier to go with the flow then to fight an up hill battle, even if they know it’s not the best solution.

Back to an earlier point.  Most people will look at the Fusion’s MPG numbers and immediately call it a failure and point directly the the Prius.  What they will fail to take into account is that the Prius is not a mid size car, it’s a compact.  It looks and feels larger because it’s a five door hatchback, if the Prius had a trunk, rather than a hatch, it WOULD qualify as a compact car.  The interior is also junk.  The fit and finish may be fine, but the quality of materials is of much lower in spec then the Ford.  It also rides and handles poorly and gives you the feeling of a riding in a can, not a car.  The Fusion feels like a proper mid size car that fully specked out as ours was borders on being classified as a near luxury car, not something that feels like it’s a $99 washing machine.  We aren’t the only ones who have driven both cars to come to this opinion by the way.  If you want a direct comparison between Ford and Toyota hybrids then you need to compare the Fusion to the Camry, that is the fair and equal measure.

Based on the information on Ford’s website this car would sticker out a few bucks shy of $32,000.  If the average price of a car is north of $30,000 now, I can call this reasonable  value for money.  While this car didn’t make me a convert, it at least addressed some of my issues, the main one being that first in foremost it has to be a good car, not a political and fashion statement.  I have ZERO problems recommending this car and would rate it 8.75 on a scale of 1-10.

Thursday
Mar192009

2009 Ford Flex Road Test

Having owned many Ford products over the last 20 years, including the 2005 Escape we currently own, we were curious to see what the evolution of Ford's quality of product would be, especially since the Flex sent to us sticked at just thirty five bucks shy of $44,000!  FOURTY FOUR FREAKING THOUSAND DOLLARS!  That my friends is a lot of jack, even in a time when the average car now costs $31,000.  To be fair, before we start stacking on the options, the list on the Flex Limited was $34,705,  There are several options which could have been omitted and not have been missed, which would have dropped the price significantly.  We'll get to that after a bit.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The Flex has been out for a while now, and here in Southeast Michigan they are a fairly common site.  That said, the Platinum White model with the chrome wheels which was dropped off looked really nice.  The chrome accent moldings on the side with the dark tint windows also did a nice job of setting off what could have been overly monochromatic look on a two box design.  This was the first solid color Flex that i have seen, all the others have been a solid body color with a white roof, ala the MINI.  The visual appeal was immediate and positive, many of my neighbors were quite taken with it's looks.

For the interior the first quick look was also positive with the tan leather interior and the three rows of dual seats from front to back, and as everyone knows there are few things better in the world then that new car smell mixed with a decent grade of leather.  Most of the materials in the interior were of a nice quality, save two items.  The first was the fake wood trim.  While it's general appearance is nice, it  feels nothing more that an ultra thin veneer over plastic on the doors, dash and wheel.  Also the trim around the center stack was just a bit to shiny plastic.  It's nice, but plastic is plastic.  Other materials were much nicer with a pleasant soft touch feel.

 

Sitting into the drivers seat the Flex feels like an extra large upscale Scion Xb.  The materials are much nicer, and immediate feel that the vehicle is much larger than it really is.  There is headroom enough for an NBA Power Forward, with room to spare, this was accentuated by the light colored interior and the multiple sunroofs.  At 5'10", I felt like I had about three feet of headroom, which was nice since it gave an ultra airy feel to the car.  The second had good leg room with seats that adjust fore and aft.  The third row was also had plenty of room, I had plenty of leg space and could have rode back there for some time with no discomfort.

Now I call this a car, but maybe a tall wagon would be a better description.  It's no SUV, as even with optional all wheel drive, a dirt road is about as far off road as you'd want to take this.  It's hard to call this a crossover, what ever the hell that is, because the driving position feels more sedan level than SUV level.  The design evokes the tall woody wagons of the 40's and 50's, intentionally I'm sure, and for whatever reason corporate marketers are afraid to call this what it is.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The Flex is powered by a 3.5 liter V6, and on paper the numbers look good, 262 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque.  It's not till you look a bit deeper that you find these numbers are a bit high in the power curve.  The peak horsepower number doesn't occur till 6250 RPM, and more importantly the peak torque number doesn't occur till 4500 RPM.  This is important for two reasons.  Number one, in normal driving, you are rarely going to exceed 4000 RPM's and number two with a curb weight of 4500 lbs, the lack of low end grunt is noticeable.  If you stick your foot into it and keep it there, the engine will rev quickly and get you to the meat of the power band where it feels snappy, but that's not going to help you much at the gas pump.  The EPA rates the Flex at 17 city and 24 highway with 19 as combined mileage.  Those numbers were fairly accurate as we got 20 in mixed driving and 25 on the highway.  We didn't go out of the way to increase mileage, just drove what we considered "normal".

If you try and drive with a light foot you feel the weight of the vehicle, if you lean on it a bit it's better.  Ford lists the 0-60 time of 9 seconds.  Our hand timing gave us 8.22 seconds.  The six speed automatic does a nice job and is pretty seamless, though occasionally coasting down from speed the downshifts are noticeable

Handling was surprising good, especially if you are used to, or coming from an SUV, even a smaller one.  It handled on and off ramps nicely, understeer wasn't obnoxious, just enough to know it was there, quick lane changes didn't send the body occelating.  Feedback through the steering wheel is about what you'd expect, there is some feedback, not as much as you might like, but probably what people who buy this type of vehicle are used to.

Down the road the EcoBoost motor is going to be offered for the Flex, and depending on the price, it might be something to consider.  If you frequently are hauling people around or plan on towing with it, the 350 foot pounds of torque from 2000 to 5000 RPM's will be most appreciated.  Ford lists the towing capacity of the Flex at 4500 lbs with the factory installed Class 3 hitch.  I'd have to wonder how hard the motor would have to be working to pull that much weight, especially if you are in a hilly or mountainous area.  Again the EcoBoost motor would most likely solve that issue.

Overall, the ride quality was good.  Spring in Michigan means potholes, and after what I would call the first normal winter we've had in the Metro Detroit area in quite a while, the potholes look more like craters you'd find on the moon!  Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, between Outer Drive and Oakwood is known to have the consistency of a washboard.  The Flex handled all of it fine.  Even some of the worst potholes didn't jar the chassis.  There were no noticeable rattles, as much as we tried.

THE TOYS

The Flex came standard with Microsoft's Sync system, on top of the our test car was equipped with the full monty Sat Nav system with backup camera.  The Nav system also works with Sirius to give you live traffic and other goodies like telling you where the closest gas station is, or who has the cheapest gas, plus much more.  The back up camera gave a nice wide angle with line guides.  The line guides on this system were fixed though, on other systems we've seen them bend to help more in parallel parking situations.  While the Sat Nav system was nice, and worked well, it clocks in at a hefty $2,375!  While it's very nicely integrated into the Sync and touch screen set up, I might have to think about that one for a while if I'm buying with my own cash.

The Sync system worked well, it connected no problem with my cell phone, a USB key and an iPod.  The 390 watt Sony system that comes standard in the Limited model had good overall sound, but didn't knock us out.  We played Techno, Jazz, Alt Rock and Classical in the system, the best that I can say here is that at times the quality of the sound seemed inconsistent.  I'll note that most of my music listening is done on a nice set of Grado headphones.  Now cars are never the best platform for music, including this one, where so much glass is present.  Over all nice system, but nothing special, which I might have been expecting at this price point.  

Voice recognition was generally good but it had some problems with the names of the channels on Sirius.  In the end it was easier to name the channel number rather than the name of the channel.  Side note about Sirius.  I'm guessing that the trial subscription ran out about halfway through our test.  In trying to call Sirius customer service to find out what the story was, three different times we were on hold for over 10 minutes without ever talking to a live person,  That is what is know by the cool kids these days as a FAIL.

The only issue that I had with Sync is that it's slow.  It takes about a beat and a half longer than what feels natural to respond to voice commands.  Voice recognition still has many issues even though people have been working with it for 20+ years now, and this is a first gen system, it holds promise, lets hope that software updates down the road can help it out.

A second toy that was included was the $1,995 DVD system with wireless headphones for the headrests.  The middle row two seats each had their own screen and DVD player.  Sound is about what you'd expect from wireless headphones and the images was certainly good enough on the screens.  It will keep your kids happy for a couple hours on a long trip. 

In between the two seats was a center console ($100 option) that included a refrigerator ($760 option).  If you have kids, or you are an executive who's riding, not driving, I can see the fridge as nice option for trips, but for me, I can't see the value. Maybe in the next Bond flick after James saves the girl, he can get away in this and keep the Krug ready to go for you know what comes next!

Lastly we have the "Panoramic Vista Sunroof" at $1,495.  Even though I've had sunroofs in several personal cars over the years, they never did much for me.  In this car though I'm might spring my own cash for this system.  It lets in a great deal of light, but also does a good job off not heating up the cabin like so many do.  As we said earlier it feels like it adds an extra foot of headroom from the atmosphere it creates.

OTHERS OPINIONS

I met up with some friends while we had the car to go see The Watchmen and I took the opportunity to drive to get their thoughts on the Flex.  One of my friends is a small business owner.  His family has owned an insurance agency for over 60 years and they have some rental properties, he drives a 2006 Acura TL.  My other friend is a VP at chemical company and drives an Infiniti.  I give you this info just so you can judge their reactions as people who are used to better vehicles.  Both were very impressed with the level of quality and features in the Flex.  When I told them what it stickers for they both thought it was a fair price.  Would either of them buy the Flex?  No, but that has more to do with one being a bachelor and the other while being married, having no children.  That being said they would both highly recommend it for their parents.  Both had a sentiment that it was nice that a domestic car maker could put out a product like this, they both hoped though that it wasn't too late.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall I was impressed with the Flex.  There are a few small things I'd like to see tweaked as we have mentioned, and perhaps a heated steering wheel option, that plastic and leather were COLD a couple mornings.  Fit and finish were nice,  The leather on the seats was more than just surface area leather.  Body gaps were tight and uniform, and it passed one of my personally most important tests, the English Mastiff test!  Some people judge cars on how they handle kids/family, I judge them on how well I can handle my dog!

On a scale of 1-10 I'm going to give the Flex an 8.5.  My issues with it are power and weight, some interior materials and price.  Someone told me to look at this car as a Range Rover on the cheap.  Think about the high end quality of it's interior, now put that into a package that's more low key and can hide in this era where displays uber-luxury are frowned upon.  If you come into this with that thought process then I think it succeeds.  At the end of the day this is a vehicle that I can highly recommend and will put it up against anything in the world.