SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- The seaside curb on Ocean Avenue, perched atop a palm-studded bluff overlooking blue Pacific waves in Santa Monica Bay, is lined on one sunlit morning by a score or more of shapely sedans dressed identically in black body paint with a snub-nosed prow highlighted by horizontal streaks of gleaming chrome.
Each vehicle by itself is fluid in shape and striking in style, projecting a futuristic design which draws the eye and commands attention.
When parked side-by-side with tails to the curb and noses protruding into the street, however, this collection of shiny new black-and-chrome cars incites a neck-craning traffic jam among California commuters along the broad but busy Ocean Avenue.
What's happening here with multiple iterations of a black-and-chrome car parked side-by-side?
It's the onset of driving tests for automotive media assembled on a Santa Monica boulevard to inspect the latest vehicle to wear the blue oval badge of Ford Motor Company.
Ford labels this new car as the Fusion.
Riding on a front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform which traces in root form to Mazda's mid-size Mazda6 sedan, Fusion for 2006 as a four-door mid-size sedan wears expressive sheetmetal outside and comes with a passenger compartment large enough to carry five comfortably.
In Ford's car line, Fusion sandwiches in size between a smaller Focus series and the larger Five Hundred sedan.
Body styling borrows cues from Ford's 427 concept car, particularly at the rounded nose with Fusion's bold three-bar grille and the oversized and multi-element projector-beam headlamps.
The body shows bulging fenders over large wheels in muscular pose with a sweeping face and raked windshield which imply swift movement even when parked.
A crisp character line etched into the leading edge of each flank fender stretches rearward above wheel arches and rises gradually to the tail deck. And a high beltline pitched parallel to the character line gains a chrome trim piece along the bottom edge of cabin windows.
It's a tall package too, due to the bowed roof.
Doors run deep to make cabin entry and exit easy and seats are elevated so passengers sit in a higher position than in other sedans of comparable size.
Inside, Fusion seems generous in scale with notable space for heads and legs.
The layout is familiar -- two bucket seats in front flanking a multi-level console and a sculptured bench for three in back with seatbacks divided and foldable.
However, the design of the cabin is uncluttered and clean, and the materials and craftsmanship seem to be a cut above competitor models in this price and size class.
Fusion presents three different interior environments depending on the trim level -- Charcoal Black, Medium Light Stone and Charcoal Black, or Dark Stone and Camel.
The instrument panel comes in grained plastic, an applique simulating carbon fiber, or premium wood veneer.
Instruments in the panel consist of easy-to-read round analog gauges ringed in satin-finished bezels and faced in black with white lettering and vivid red needles.
Fusion provides three tiers of trim with a price-leader base model S plus mainstream SE and top-level SEL.
Standard equipment on the base issue ranges from 16-inch wheels and all-season Continental tires to power controls for windows and door locks plus a remote keyless entry device, air conditioning, speed control system and a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes, and a stereo audio package with CD/MP3 deck and four speakers.
Top trim Fusion SEL brings foglamps in the front fascia, 17-inch aluminum wheels capped by Michelin Pilot HIX MXM4 tires, automatic climate controls in the cabin and interior trim of upgraded wood or piano black slats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and six-disc CD/MP3 stereo. Fusion SEL options include heat elements in front buckets and leather upholstery, and a Premium Package adds automatic headlamps, heated exterior mirrors and automatic dimming for the interior rearview mirror.
Issues of personal safety are addressed with strong structural elements and energy-absorbing crush zones front and rear plus a variety of safety systems aboard. All versions contain dual-stage frontal air bags for front riders with smart sensors in place to track the severity of a frontal crash along with the driver's seat position in proximity to the steering wheel and whether seat belts are being used. Side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags for front and back rows are available optionally.
Equipment promoting active safety includes a fast rack and pinion steering mechanism and standard four-wheel disc brakes, with options for an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and a traction control system (TCS).
Ford builds two aluminum engines for Fusion -- a new 2.3-liter four-cylinder plant in the entry-issue Fusion S or an optional dual-cam 3.0-liter V6 for Fusion SE and the SEL. The base Duratec 23 in-line-four plant, rigged with intake variable cam timing (i-VCT) and electronic throttle control (ETC), produces 160 hp at 6500 rpm and torque tipping to 150 lb-ft at 4000 rpm. It links to the standard five-speed manual transmission or an optional five-speed automatic.
The Duratec 30 V6, also equipped with i-VCT and ETC, rises to 221 hp at 6250 rpm with 205 lb-ft of torque generated at 4800 rpm.
With the V6, Ford adds a wide-ratio six-speed automatic transaxle to bolster performance and fuel economy scores. We steer a prototype version of the Fusion SEL outfitted with the V6 plant and six-speed automatic on an extended course over Mulholland Drive, a twisted ribbon of asphalt warped in corkscrew contours across the Santa Monica Mountains above Los Angeles. This Fusion handles all of Mulholland's curves in a steady and stable no-nonsense manner, demonstrating a flat stance on a rock-rigid platform and fast action from crisp and direct steering gears.
Ford charts price points for Fusion to an unexpected low level beginning at $17,995, or $21,275 for the V6.