Editor's note: Ford revised its EPA fuel economy numbers for the 2014 Ford Fusion Energi. The new numbers show an electric range of 19 miles, an MPG equivalent average of 88, and a gasoline MPG average of 38. This review has been updated to reflect the new numbers.
Automotive innovations usually come from racing development or smart engineers within big automotive companies. Not so the plug-in hybrid, an idea dreamed up about 10 years ago by hackers in California who figured they could make the Toyota Prius better. Swapping in a bigger battery pack, adding a plug-in port, and revising the power control software, these hackers made what they called the Prius Plus and boasted of its 100-plus-mpg fuel economy.
They also set the stage for the 2014 Ford Fusion Energi, a Ford Fusion midsize sedan with plug-in hybrid driveline.
Ford is putting a lot of its advanced fuel efficiency game into the Fusion, offering the model with four engine choices, three of them from its EcoBoost line as well as a standard hybrid model. The Fusion Energi builds on the Fusion Hybrid with a greater-capacity lithium ion battery pack, 7.6 kilowatt-hours, that can charge from the grid to give the car an EPA-rated electric range of 19 miles.
Once you use up the electric range, the Fusion Energi seamlessly switches to hybrid mode, getting another 599 miles with the gasoline in its tank and the recaptured kinetic energy from braking. Look at the Fusion Energi as a kind of stepping stone to electric cars, a midpoint until battery tech improves for longer range and more affordability.
The Fusion model was a good choice for the plug-in hybrid driveline. It is a very attractive midsize sedan with a design that isn't too ostentatious. Four doors offer easy access to the roomy cabin, which can handily fit five. And even in the SE trim model I tested, one step down from the Platinum trim model, I enjoyed power-adjustable front seats and soft-touch materials over the dashboard. Lacking the Intelligent Access option, I actually had to use a metal key to start the car instead of a push-button, which didn't seem quite in keeping with the high-tech driveline.
There are two compromises you have to make when choosing the Fusion Energi over its stablemates, the most serious being that it loses about half its trunk space to the enlarged battery pack. It's a drop from 16 cubic feet down to 8.2 cubic feet, so you might have to pack a little lighter. Second is a weight gain of almost 500 pounds over a standard Fusion, and 245 pounds over the Fusion Hybrid.
Ford is addressing weight issues with its Advanced Materials Car, also built on the Fusion platform.
To test the Fusion Energi's range, I plugged it in overnight so it had a fully charged battery for my next day's driving. The standard J1772 port, located on the left-front fender for nose-in parking, takes only 2.5 hours to charge from a 240-volt source, or 7 hours from a 120-volt wall outlet. When I got in the next morning, the left-side LCD on the instrument cluster, which offers a variety of trip and energy use gauges, showed 20 miles of electric range, an estimate based on how the car had been driven up to that point.
After an hour behind the wheel, I had run that estimate down to 1 mile, using not a drop of gasoline the entire time. Checking the odometer, I had covered only 17.2 actual miles, the slow average speed being due to the intense urban driving on the streets of San Francisco, with traffic and frequent stoplights.
Aware that hard acceleration kills electric range, I was gentle in my driving, and the Fusion Energi encouraged efficient braking with a display on the instrument cluster telling me how close I had come to 100 percent energy recapture. However, a few hills and segments of highway driving took a toll on the range.
In electric mode, I was impressed by how well the Fusion Energi drove. Its acceleration did not feel crippled in any way. When I put it in drive, aggressive creep mode programming had the car straining against the brakes, ready to move as soon as I lifted off the brake pedal. Keeping up with traffic was not an issue, although my desire to hoard my electric range meant I wasn't first off the line.
I felt the extra weight in the handling, but not in the ride quality. The Fusion Energi offered the same supple, comfortable ride as every other Fusion of this generation. The suspension effectively damped out rough spots in the road. As for the handling, I didn't find the extra weight a problem, but it was noticeable. In the turns, the Fusion Energi had more of a load shift to its outside wheels than its siblings.
There were only a couple of things that didn't impress me about the Fusion Energi's driving character. The electric power steering gave a slight rheostat-like buzz when turned while at a stop or at low speeds. Like the extra weight in the handling, this is something most drivers will gloss over. At speed, the steering responds well but feels numb, not really an issue because the Fusion Energi isn't a driver's car. Maybe Ford will come out with a Fusion ST?
As for my second issue, when driving in hybrid mode the Fusion Energi's engine sounded rough under acceleration. Again, this was a relatively minor issue, just a little extra noise from a generally quiet drivetrain when I tipped in the gas pedal.
I was more impressed by the fact that the handover, from electric drive to hybrid mode, was utterly seamless. The accelerator response felt the same between each power mode, due to Ford engineers matching the power delivery curve from the power control electronics and the electronic continuously variable transmission, a gear set that mixes power from the engine and electric motor when in hybrid mode before sending it to the front wheels.
Ford gives the Fusion Energi a console-mounted drive selector: a shifter with standard park, reverse, neutral, drive, and low positions. When using the low position on a hill descent, I did not see energy regeneration occurring on the instrument cluster display, so I relied on the brake pedal instead. The Fusion Energi's regenerative braking means less use of the friction brakes, so I wasn't burning up the brake pads.
More useful was the rocker switch on the side of the shifter, which engaged a descent control mode using both battery regeneration and engine braking. With this mode activated, I could apply the brakes on a downhill grade and the car would maintain a steady speed, turning excess momentum into more electric range.
The Fusion Energi's engine is a 2-liter four-cylinder producing 141 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque. Its electric motor generates 118 horsepower, 88 kilowatts, with that power blended with the engine's through the transmission. Ford rates the total system output at 188 horsepower, which felt more than adequate to get the Fusion Energi up and running. It had enough acceleration to give me confidence for freeway merging and passing slower traffic in the opposite lane.