Curbside Newsstand: RIP Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ – Ford Motor Company’s Last Mid-Size Sedans

As the Ford Fusion rides off into the sunset, it can only be playing one song: Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Production at Ford’s Hermosillo plant ends today for the mid-size and its Lincoln counterpart. Throughout its fifteen year run, the Fusion presented itself as a stylish mid-size with good ride and handling characteristics. It was frequently part of Ford’s attempts to rehabilitate its image amid product droughts and paradigm shifts. By contrast, the Lincoln MKZ played second fiddle to its more popular sibling. But as that mid-size also faces the final curtain, it ends its run on a surprisingly respectful footing.

When Ford launched the Fusion in 2005 for the 2006 model year, it faced years of stagnant product and falling marketshare. Ford’s passenger cars were in dire need of replacement. And their SUV lineup wasn’t faring well either. Although the Escape was doing reasonably well, Explorer sales dropped off precipitously, as buyers instantly gravitated towards the new crop of three-row crossovers from Honda and Toyota. Basically, aside from Ford’s full-size truck lineup, the brand was facing an existential crisis.

The Fusion essentially became the vanguard for a new wave of Blue Oval vehicles. These cars were relatively cautious products from a pretty lean period in the company’s history. But at least in the Fusion’s case, they were smart ones. While the D3 platform duo (Ford Five Hundred and Freestyle) channeled their Volvo heritage to make a set of somewhat bland entries in the full-size and three-row crossover segments, Ford wisely sliced off a bit of that sweet Mazda pie to create a dynamically capable sedan. The designers combined visual DNA from Honda, Cadillac, and Ford’s own roster to make a very attractive design, one of the best looking mainstream sedans of the 2000s.

The Fusion received praise from critics upon its debut and it made for a relatively smooth and successful launch. But it wasn’t without its flaws. The interior was a no-nonsense affair of the highest order. And despite some nice touches like a piano black interior option, it couldn’t really overcome a center stack centered around Ford’s ultimate cost saving move: the ubiquitous double DIN audio unit. Ford wasn’t the only automaker to employ one identically designed audio unit throughout its entire lineup during this era, but for a car that needed to make inroads, it wasn’t the best decision Ford could have made.

There was another issue too. Ford, like Hyundai with its 2006 Sonata, was simply playing catch-up to the seventh generation Honda Accord. That model represented the apotheosis of the American mid-size sedan in the early 2000s. It arrived fully baked and with excellent powertrains and competitive features to boot. Toyota and Honda didn’t perfectly replicate the Taurus formula until 1997 and 1998, respectively. But it only took one generation for Honda to unquestionably surpass it. By 2006, it was Ford that had to respond to its rivals, not the other way around. In that context, the Fusion faced an uphill battle even before it reached showrooms. An Automotive News article from September 19, 2005* highlighted Ford’s problem very acutely:

Ford Motor Co. expects its new Fusion sedan to take on the mid-sized segment leaders, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

But Ford executives aren’t counting on winning over a big chunk of Camry and Accord customers. Instead, the Fusion will enable Ford to retain its own buyers, says Steve Lyons, group vice president of North American marketing, sales and service.

Each year, 20,000 drivers trade in their Mustangs to buy a mid-sized car, and “none of them buy a Ford,” Lyons said at a press event here.

And 20 percent of consumers who have an F-150 pickup or an Explorer SUV also own a competitor’s mid-sized car, he added.

Ford executives are under the gun because of falling market share and mounting losses in the company’s North American auto business. They are counting on the Fusion to arrest that decline.

“This is arguably the most important car launch for Ford since the Taurus in 1985,” Lyons said. “Fusion is the centerpiece, and we’ve got to get this right.”

Ford didn’t create a revolutionary vehicle with the first generation Fusion. The company simply demonstrated that it could build a modern mid-size sedan. But between 2006-2010, something interesting happened: Toyota and Honda played it extremely safe with their redesigns. The 2007 Camry, for example, itself borrowed quite a bit from the 2003 Accord, most notably its rear end and its interior.

Even the Accord slumped a bit. The eighth generation gained some mass and lost the precisely chiseled aesthetic of its predecessor.

Its interior lost a bit of that elegant simplicity too.

A lack of credible competitors led the Japanese into a period of complacency. Ford had been steadily narrowing the quality and feature gap with the 2006-2009 Fusion, as it endured a smooth launch and steadily built up its roster of options, which included Ford Sync, satellite navigation, and optional all-wheel drive for the Duratec V6. But it wasn’t until the 2010 redesign (or heavy refresh, depending on your perspective) that Ford thoroughly closed the enthusiasm gap. Suddenly, Ford breathed so much fresh air into the Fusion that it became 100 percent competitive with its longer running competitors. Here’s what Motor Trend had to say about the new model in its piece announcing the Fusion as its Car of the Year for 2010:

“Want an economical midsize sedan that doesn’t cost much, yet won’t bore you to tears? Need to please your greener side with a high-tech hybrid? Fancy a near-sport sedan with AWD, 18-inch rolling stock, and the latest infotainment and electronics? Depending on which model you choose and how many option boxes you tick, the Fusion can be any of the above. Arthur St. Antoine calls the Fusion “a compelling sweep across one of the market’s most hotly contested segments.”

Ford’s competitive roster grew stronger between 2010-2012. Ford took already decent products like the Edge, Escape, and Fusion and outfitted them with enough improvements to make them even more compelling. The Explorer rose from the ashes of body-on-frame hell to become a more sophisticated three-row and instantly regained its lost mojo. Then the Mulally-era “One Ford” vehicles started to trickle in. The Fiesta and Focus burst onto the scene with their sharp styling, feature content, and sophisticated driving dynamics.

Another one-two punch arrived in the form of the 2013 Escape and Fusion. The Escape represented just as much of a leap forward as the Fusion. However, mid-size sedans were still viewed as the default vehicle of choice for Middle America back then. And that’s to say nothing of Fusion’s styling, which was (and still is) an absolute home run. Ford combined the Mondeo’s overall profile with some Aston Martin touches and developed a visual knockout in the process. Moray Callum, then Executive Director of design at Ford, is the man most likely responsible for that. And he probably consulted with his brother Ian too, the guy who basically created Aston Martin’s modern design ethos. Possibly over dinner. Either way, Ford was back to dictating terms in the segment.

If you want to find the vehicles most important to an automaker, just look for the models with the highest number of powertrains, trim levels, and overall customization options. For a while, the Fusion was one of those vehicles for Ford. The lineup was sprawling. There was the super basic rental-spec S, the mid-grade SE, and top tier Titanium. The SE was the true star of the bunch, as it allowed buyers to obtain niceties like leather and a sunroof without moving up a trim level, which was standard practice with the Accord.

Fusion sales grew substantially from 2010-2014, rising about 40 percent. It came within spitting distance of the Altima for a brief period of time. A clear upward trajectory. Too bad the crude oil price collapse of 2015 took the wind out of its sails. But the Fusion always faced an uphill battle in a cutthroat segment. It wasn’t exactly through any fault of its own. The Japanese, despite entering a very minor malaise period between roughly 2008-2015, still produced cars with unassailable build quality and refinement. The Japanese weren’t at the top of their game during this time. But they greatly benefited from the goodwill they had earned with their previous models.

And while the Fusion avoided major quality and reliability issues – mainly because it didn’t come equipped with Ford’s problematic PowerShift dual-clutch transmission – its reputation hasn’t been perfect. Ford seemingly engineered their 4 cylinder EcoBoost and third generation hybrid powertrains for performance over fuel economy, despite what their EPA ratings suggested. And there have been some notable recalls too, like an early issue with the 1.6 liter EcoBoost four cylinder that resulted in fires. Ford would replace the engine with a slightly smaller 1.5 liter variant shortly thereafter.

That being said, the Fusion has been fairly reliable. Additionally, the Fusion’s fourth place status in a declining segment enabled it to become quite the value on the used car market.

When Honda and Toyota introduced their model year 2018 redesigns in 2017, they emphasized their sportiness and dynamism. The rapid ascension of the crossover enabled that, at least to a certain extent. But they clearly also felt it necessary to inject some Fusion-inspired DNA into their sedans. Basically, the Fusion can confidentially go off into the automotive afterlife knowing that it mattered.

The Fusion’s influence is arguably more evident in the Accord than the Camry.

In any event, the end result are two sedan mainstays that are better than they’ve ever been. And both are substantial improvements over their respective predecessors. You can partially thank the Fusion for those very welcome developments.

As for the MKZ, it always operated in the Fusion’s shadow. Basically, the mid-size Lincoln existed as an Acura TL/TLX or Lexus ES alternative for Lincoln stalwarts. It was possibly hampered by the three letter nomenclature, but realistically, it had far less of a chance at making inroads in the luxury segment than the Fusion did against its rivals. The 2013+ model didn’t light the sales charts on fire, even if it was a big step up from the original model.

Although when compared against Cadillac’s repeated failure to mount any sort of serious competition to the Germans, despite spending billions of dollars, Lincoln’s sedan struggles seem pretty quaint. That’s especially true when pretty much every luxury sedan priced between $35k-$50k is getting thoroughly embarrassed by the Model 3 these days, so the MKZ’s relative invisibility ultimately didn’t matter that much.

And surprisingly enough, the MKZ can leave this world in peace knowing it influenced at least one other vehicle: the 2020 Kia K5.

What else is there to say about the Fusion that hasn’t already been said? It represented an era (roughly 2008-2013) when the Big Three finally learned one major lesson from escaping death and/or bankruptcy: their products couldn’t arrive under-cooked anymore. That was a lesson they should have learned by 1990. But American automakers got lazy. However, in a broad sense, they’ve maintained that axiom to this day.

The Fusion itself did the best that it could given the circumstances. But the boondoggle that was the 1996 Taurus redesign and the long decline of the fourth generation model may have sealed the Fusion’s fate before it even debuted. By 2006, the Japanese already held an ironclad grip over the segment.

The 2013 Fusion ultimately became the true successor to the original Taurus. With one big caveat: the Taurus competed in a sparsely populated segment in 1986. By the 2010s the opposite would be true. All things considered it’s still an overpopulated segment. But Ford really couldn’t have done any better than they did.

There is one other notable detail about the Fusion’s demise. Technically, it’s not dying, just going to purgatory until Ford uses whatever black magic it needs to in order for it to be reborn as a Subaru Outback competitor. When it does return it will most likely be built at Hermosillo. But this time it will be constructed alongside the Bronco Sport and the upcoming sub-Ranger pickup. And like the 2006, 2010, and 2013 models, it will be summoned as part of a new paradigm shift away from the strategies that didn’t work in the past.

It’s hard to say how many more times Ford can keep rebooting itself while executives say “we’ve got to get this right,” but upcoming products like the Mustang Mach-E, 2021 Ford F-150, and 2021 Bronco look very promising. It seems current CEO Jim Hackett is leading the company to a future that looks a bit brighter than it did back in 2018, when Ford announced its decision to stop making small cars and sedans, but lacked any major replacement products to soften the blows that would come with their cancellations.

Ford’s last mid-size sedan faced it all and stood tall. The company’s steady crescendo last decade crested with the Fusion. And it was the right car to cap off that veritable renaissance period, an era that felt a bit more exciting and dynamic than the current automotive landscape, even if there is a lot to look forward to.

* – Wilson, Amy. “Why Ford’s new Fusion can’t flop; Forget chasing Camry buyers, Ford wants to hang onto its own.” Automotive News, vol. 80, no. 6166, 19 Sept. 2005, p. 8.