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Ford's new Fusion Energi hybrid gives driver choice of motors

Ford's fifth alternative energy vehicle lets the driver choose either the gasoline or electric motor to power the car.

Ford's latest entry into the alternative energy vehicle market, the Fusion Energi, is notable for the reassuring amount of control it gives drivers over its plug-in-hybrid powertrain.

Ford previewed the new model to about a dozen journalists here in San Francisco earlier this week. The Fusion Energi is a variation on Ford's bread-and-butter midpriced sedan. It will sell in the $28,000 range when it becomes available later this year.

The Energi has a huge battery, which eats up a good part of the trunk space, but  otherwise the car seems to strike a graceful balance between the intriguingly progressive and the comfortably traditional.

Choosing between gas and electric motors

Ford emphasized that the Fusion Energi is designed to reassure people who get range anxiety when they think about electric cars, by offering choices. You can choose to drive the Fusion Energi in 'Auto EV' mode (like most hybrids) where the car decides when to engage the gas engine and when to use the electric powertrain. Or, you can choose 'EV Later' mode in which you can tell the car to stay with the gas motor. You might switch to this mode if, say, you know your battery is low. Or, you can press an 'EV' button on the center console to use just the electric motor, which is good for short-distance drives.

Reassuring drivers with range anxiety

Even though Ford had nothing to do with the recent fiasco concerning the New York Times's test drive of a Tesla S sedan, the event may well have colored the perceptions of potential hybrid buyers. But the Energi has a 2.0-liter gas engine with a 14-gallon tank, along with its electric motor and 7.6 kWh lithium-ion battery. Ford claims that the electric motor alone has a range of 21 miles on a full charge. The gas and electric engines combined, with a full tank and a full charge, have a range of 620 miles, according to Ford.

Your mileage can vary a lot depending on the way you drive the car, which I observed during a test drive of the Fusion Energi. If you make a lot of sudden stops (as city driving can require), the motor and battery can't recover as much power from the car's deceleration as it can from the gradual slow-downs that regenerative braking prefers.

The instrument cluster has two displays that show fuel-economy data in various configurations, as well as infotainment settings.

You toggle through the displays using buttons on the steering wheel.

The central display has a special screen to show you how your battery is being used throughout the car.

Because it's a plug-in hybrid, you have two options for charging the battery. You can use regenerative braking, which converts the car's forward momentum into battery energy as the car slows down. This is common in hybrid cars. Or, you can plug the car into a home or public charging station. A circle of LEDs surrounding the charge port give you at-a-glance charge status.

Ford's MyFord Mobile app and Web site help you track your charging status. The apps will even tell you if your car is unplugged from a charging station; this is especially useful in public locales, where other drivers might decide it's their turn to get some juice. Ford also just announced a partnership with PlugShare to provide even more charging station data than it already offered. According to Ford, PlugShare offers information on more than 11,500 charging stations nationwide.

I couldn't check the charging-station app during my brief test drive of the Energi around downtown San Francisco, but I could switch among driving modes and use one of the instrument cluster's many displays to monitor my fuel economy. You can definitely tell the difference between the low rumble of the gas motor and the almost eerie silence of the electric motor, depending on which is in operation. After spending a week recently with the Ford C-Max Hybrid, I came to appreciate the extra bit of serenity that can come from the lack of engine noise while driving.

The Fusion Energi will list for $27,995, $1600 less than its predecessor. In California, it will qualify for the $1500 tax credit and HOV-lane access. It's a nice addition, offering the traditional sedan look and lots of choices for how to use its powertrain.


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