CAMDEN, Ark. - Our unending quest for a curvy blacktop course leads to Arkansas 7, known locally as the Ouachita River Road, which traces every twist and bend of a snaky sluice wiggling near villages of Sparkman, Amy and Kent in the pine forests of southern Arkansas until we roll into the old river town of Camden.
The vehicle we pick for this romp down a convoluted river road happens to be a luxurious new hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) from Ford.
It's badged as the 2010 Fusion Hybrid and amounts to a fuel-efficient gas-electric treatment for the mid-size Fusion sedan, which fits in Ford's sedan lineup between a smaller Focus and the larger Taurus.
New bodywork for Fusion Hybrid forges some fresh style lines which look dressy but also sporty.
Up front the car shows revised headlamp clusters with multi-element projector-beam headlamps, a broad three-bar chrome grille and subtle bump-up dome on the hood.
Also present are new aerodynamic elements around the base of the body plus underbody shields designed to enhance the fuel economy scores.
Riding on a front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform, the Fusion Hybrid sedan comes with a passenger compartment large enough to carry five comfortably.
But what makes this vehicle unusual concerns the fact that it totes not one but two motors in the engine compartment.
There's a fuel-efficient 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that sips gasoline plus a battery-powered electric traction motor of permanent-magnet design.
The AC (alternating current) synchronous electric motor is capable of propelling the car by itself, or it can work in concert with the gasoline engine to deliver a power boost that's comparable to the kick of a V6.
Ford adds an electronic control module to manage all energy produced by the two plants and apply it directly to the front wheels in infinitely variable measures through the electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT).
Virtually silent at start-up with only the electric motor switching on, Fusion Hybrid leaps forward on command with help from the electric motor, which can propel the car up to 47 mph.
When more power is needed, a generator cranks up the gasoline engine in only a fraction of a second.
At highway speeds the gas engine does most of the motivating, while in reverse gear it's the electric motor that handles all of the work, and the electric motor also serves as the primary plant in stop-and-go traffic on city streets where a gas engine is inefficient.
Power from the gasoline engine is utilized in two different ways. One portion of this energy is used to turn the car's front wheels, while another portion powers an electric generator that runs the electric motor, which in turn sends the supplemental power to the wheels.
Stomp the accelerator to leap into a passing lane and the electric motor adds an extra boost, yet for such a heavy demand of power the operating energy for the motor comes directly from a bank of on-board batteries.
Internal recharging occurs either during braking, when the gas engine operates as a generator, or when the electric generator does the recharging job. Thus, Fusion Hybrid never needs to be plugged in for recharging as would a purely electric vehicle.
The four-cylinder gasoline-drinking plant has dual overhead cams and intake variable cam timing (i-VCT), which allows the switch between gas and electric mode, plus modifications for fuel-efficient combustion under the Atkinson-cycle concept.
It develops 156 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 136 lb-ft at 2250 rpm.
The 275-volt electric motor, tied to a smaller and lighter-weight nickel-metal hydride battery, kindles power measured in kilowatts, but it's the approximate equivalent of 106 hp at 6500 rpm.
Combined output for Fusion's gas and electric motors is estimated to reach 191 hp.
Adding the hybrid technology to Fusion produces a vehicle which earns uncommonly high fuel economy numbers but also dramatically pared tailpipe emissions such as unburned hydrocarbons (HC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx).
Fuel economy figures rise to 41 mpg for running on city streets and 36 mpg for highway driving.
Note that Fusion Hybrid achieves better fuel efficiency when plowing city streets in start-and-stop traffic rather than when cruising at a swifter pace on a highway. That's because in city traffic with frequent stops the electric motor takes over.
In the cabin Fusion Hybrid 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.
Essentially, the cabin was designed around the body sizes of intended occupants, with more than adequate room allowed for long legs and broad shoulders.
The spec sheet for Fusion Hybrid lists lots of active and passive safety equipment.
Passive devices include smart dual-stage frontal air bags for front riders, plus seat-mounted side air bags up front and curtain-style side air bags front and rear.
Gear promoting active safety includes a rack and pinion steering mechanism and standard four-wheel disc brakes tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS).
The list of standard equipment on Fusion Hybrid ranges from 17-inch aluminum wheels and P225/50R17 all-season tires to power controls for windows and door locks, electronic automatic climate controls, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 110-volt power point, six-disc CD/MP3 stereo, plus Ford's reverse sensing system (RSS).
Options include leather upholstery, a navigation package, driver vision package and Ford Sync for voice-activated control over in-car phones, media players and USB storage devices.
Ford slants MSRP figures for Fusion Hybrid at a low level beginning at $27,270.