Ford's popular Fusion receives a fairly substantial mid-generation upgrade for 2010, but from an eco perspective, the single biggest change to this mid-size sedan is the addition of a Hybrid model to the lineup. As Ford has been relentlessly touting, it will easily take the measure of its prime rival, the Toyota Camry Hybrid, in the critical mileage-maxing department. But having spent time behind the wheel of some preproduction samples, we can confirm that this well-finished eco runner merits solid marks in virtually all other meaningful categories, as well.

Powering the Fusion Hybrid is the latest version of Ford's gas-electric package. Save for minor recalibrations, its 2.5-liter inline-4 engine is identical to the one in the Escape Hybrid and uses the same efficiency enhancing Atkinson Cycle with Intake Variable Cam Timing (iVCT). Also carried is the electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). What's new here is a redesigned battery pack that retains Nickel Metal-Hydride (NiMH) lineage but boasts revamped chemistry that packs 20 percent more energy into a system that has 17 percent fewer cells and weighs 23 percent less than the Escape's battery. It also raises the total system output from 156 to 191 horsepower. New controller elements on the motor/generator side -- including a slick variable voltage converter -- help create nearly seamless transitions, increase operating efficiencies and permit double the number of start/stop episodes. Upgrades to the regenerative braking system also make it far more effective at on-the-fly recharging.

Under proper conditions, Ford says the 2010 Fusion Hybrid can cruise at up to 47 mph for a mile or two on pure electric power. That's seven mph better than any of the company's existing hybrid configurations. Of greater interest to potential buyers, the EPA has just announced this new Fusion has earned 41 mpg/36mpg city/highwaymarks. Those numbers put it well beyond both the 2009 Camry Hybrid (33 city/34 hwy mpg) and Chevy Malibu (26 city/34 hwy mpg). Even confining our hyper-miling tendencies to safe-and-sane levels, we managed to record 39.6 mpg on our stint in rush-hour traffic.

While benefitting from the comprehensive interior upgrading given all 2010 Fusion models, the Hybrid highlights its new look with a slick SmartGauge with EcoGuide display. Using an array of colorful multi-mode/multi-tiered readouts that flank the analog speedometer, SmartGauge provides increasingly greater levels of driver-selectable information aimed at helping boost your mileage. Also exclusive to the Hybrid is a super-efficient climate control system that incorporates an energy-saving electric compressor.

Tipping the scales at 3720 pounds, the Hybrid is several hundred pounds heavier than the baseline four-cylinder Fusion -- although still lighter than an all-wheel drive V6 model. While chassis tuning leans more toward comfort than sport, the Fusion Hybrid displays considerably crisper dynamic responses than a hybrid Camry. Its electric-power-assisted steering proved both responsive and decently weighted and the turning circle has been trimmed by 1.2 feet for easier maneuvering. Ford engineers also improved pedal actuation on the car's anti-lock brakes, imparting a far more linear and natural feel than on most other hybrids fitted with similar kinds of regen systems.

Base price for the new Fusion Hybrid starts at $27,995, about a $3,300 bump over a comparable four-cylinder SEL on which it's based. Like the rest of the 2010 Fusion line, expect the Hybrid in showrooms late in the first quarter of 2009 -- along with its Mercury cousin, the Milan Hybrid. Currently, Ford is projecting sales of 20,000-25,000 for its most frugal Fusion variant. Meeting or exceeding that figure will clearly depend on how the industry fares in what already promises to be a pretty challenging year ahead. But external influences notwithstanding, Ford's latest gas/electric package definitely bodes well, both for the Fusion/Milan duo and all future FoMoCo hybrid offerings.

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