Ford unveils its (unlikely) masterpiece

September 20, 2012: 7:16 AM ET

No, it's not a steroidal muscle car or rough-neck truck. It's a mid-size sedan. And it shows just how far the company has come under CEO Alan Mulally.

Please see correction below.

By Doron Levin, contributor

FORTUNE -- Ford Motor Co.'s restyled Fusion midsize family sedan clearly departs from the model it replaces in the looks department. The old one was utilitarian and sensible; the new one borders on racy, like a chorus line dancer stepping in for the clerk at Barnes & Noble.

The new Fusion is a departure mechanically as well: Ford's (F) new midsize car architecture is all its own, replacing one that was derived from one shared with Mazda. The same vehicle, with minor differences, will be sold in Europe and China as the Mondeo and in South America dubbed the Fusion.

Ford's latest midsize family car, the best seller in its lineup, must contend in the most competitive segment in the U.S., responsible for one in four car sales. As such, Ford is turning its game up a notch, bidding to make the Fusion stand out from the crowd rather than blend with the appearance favored by Japanese carmaker's Toyota (TM) Camry and Honda (HMC) Accord.

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"I would call it eye-catching, definitely more upscale," said Judy Curran, Ford's vehicle line director for Fusion in a telephone interview. "It's got great proportions and is very sophisticated." Jesse Toprak, an analyst for TrueCar, an automotive website, said Fusion "looks pretty and is designed to stand out without being polarizing."

More than one critic has noted the design cues on the Fusion's exteriors that seem borrowed from Aston Martin, another subsidiary that Ford no longer owns. Alan Mulally, Ford CEO, has been relentless in his push to streamline and simplify the automaker, using the slogan "One Ford," so that worldwide operations are efficient and avoid costly duplication.

The first Fusions should be reaching U.S. dealerships in the next week or two from Ford's factory in Hermosillo, Mexico. Sometime next year, Ford intends to expand production by adding another assembly line at a plant in Flat Rock, Michigan.

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In the U.S., Fusion sales trail those of Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan (NSANY) Altima, while leading those of Hyundai Sonata and Chevrolet (GM) Malibu. Ford will need help in Europe, where demand for vehicles has collapsed broadly. In August, Ford's unit sales on the count were down a gut-wrenching 29% from a year ago. Just as critical as the sales numbers for Ford will be the revenue per unit it can realize. According to Curran, the vehicle's retail price starts "in the low 20s" and rise to $30,995 for the premium Titanium version.

Curran noted that a $1,000 "safety package" of options will include blind spot detection, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control, which helps drivers avoid rear-ending a vehicle ahead due to distraction or loss of attention. That all three features are offered on a mainstream sedan shows how quickly features once offered in only the most expensive vehicles are migrating to the mainstream. The trend is bound to continue as the technology becomes less costly and more advanced variants are developed.

Mulally, who introduced 2013 Fusion in Times Square in New York City, emphasized the fuel efficiency of the gas-electric hybrid version, rated at 47 miles per gallon for city, highway and combined driving. Ford can boast that its hybrid is the most fuel-efficient in the segment, topping the Camry hybrid.

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The Fusion in many ways epitomizes the last six years of change at Ford under Mulally's direction. The automaker's simpler structure has allowed it to concentrate its resources and energy on making its core vehicles stronger. The extent to which that effort flows to the bottom line will be evident in short order.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated an older version of the Fusion was based on a platform provided by Volvo. It was in fact provided by Mazda. The text has been changed to reflect that. Fortune regrets the error.

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