Ford Motor Co. sponsored 10 rock concerts last summer to introduce its 2006 Fusion to a new generation of family sedan buyers.
It was an odd marketing strategy. The Fusion is a fun car. But it's also as serious as a mortgage payment, college tuition bill or a Saturday filled with soccer-shopper schlepping -- the kinds of things most people don't think about at rock concerts.
But Ford has been promoting the notion that the mid-size Fusion is hip, which it is in a deeper, more poetic sense of the term. The problem, as evidenced by the intended appeal of the Fusion Flash concerts, is Ford's belief that being hip and being young are synonymous, which they aren't.
Hipness belies age. It is a matter of awareness, of appreciating the jazz and blues of life. It is acceptance that pleasure has its necessary counterpart in responsibility and that both are balanced on the fulcrum of compromise.
The Fusion proves that much.
The front-wheel-drive car is based on a platform used by Mazda Motor Corp. to build its Mazda6 sedans and wagons. Ford has a controlling interest in Mazda. It thus makes sense that Ford would borrow something from its Japanese partner to roll out an attractive family sedan of its own.
Ford has done that with the Fusion -- easily one of the best-looking family sedans it has produced in decades. It's sassy. It's urban and urbane, a mixture of hip-hop and old school stirred with lots of soul.
That is as it should be. Presumably, people willing to part with more than $20,000 for a family hauler are serious sorts. They want reliability and value, the latter meaning the most car for the least money. They get that in the Fusion. They also want a car that looks good inside and out, and the Fusion satisfies that desire as well.
The Fusion's exterior lines are sensuous -- sexy without being obscene. There are no extravagantly bulging fenders. There is no excessively pointed nose, no adolescent flying rear wing. The side panels are conservative intermediaries joining a tastefully raked front end with a nicely tapered rear. A bold, three-bar chrome grille pays ample homage to the Age of Bling-Bling. Sharply angled headlamps enhance a sense of style.
Several years ago, Ford launched a campaign to give us better vehicle interiors, and the Fusion has one of the best -- a perfect blend of downtown and uptown, casual and formal. The tested Fusion SEL V-6 came with optional black leather surface seats with white stitching. The instrument panel was black on black with surfaces cleverly distinguished by texture, such as the piano black lacquer pieces in the center console and on the gearbox's faceplate.
The Fusion's slightly elevated analog gauges create a sporty feeling without falling overboard into boy-racer silliness. From a driver's viewpoint, the front cabin is an ergonomic delight, with everything where it is supposed to be, everything in reach.
The Fusion replaces the Ford Taurus, a good car and onetime bestseller for Ford that underwent an unfortunate redesign in 1996 that drove away buyers. In terms of sales, the Taurus and its sibling Mercury Sable actually died several years ago -- a passing Ford temporarily celebrated by bypassing the mid-size family-car market in favor of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. The Taurus and Sable officially were declared dead, out of production, this year.
I wish Ford would have ignored Mercury in launching its newest line of mid-size sedans -- the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr, all of which are based on the Mazda6 platform. I've said this in previous columns; and I repeat it now -- I promise, for the last time -- because it bothers me so much.
Anyone driving the Fusion, especially the 221-horsepower SEL V-6, would be hard put to justify spending hundreds of dollars more for the Milan, which has all of the Fusion's components but none of its soul or down-to-earth personality. The Milan, in fact, has no identity, no reason for being other than to give the Mercury Division a mid-size car to sell. The Lincoln Zephyr, on the other hand, succeeds in establishing itself as a bona fide, entry-level luxury automobile.
What any of this has to do with rock concerts or "youth appeal" remains a mystery to me. The people who will buy the Fusion, and here's betting there will be many of them, will do so simply because it is a good and good-looking car, blessed with a discernible identity, sensibly priced and reliably engineered. That is all most of us -- young or old, hip or square -- ever wanted from Ford.