“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.”
(Originally published September 9th, 2018) Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a lot of things: a statement on how the baby boomers failed to create a safe and stable world for their progeny; an exploration into the value of failure; a deconstruction of the hero’s journey. But above all, the film wrestles with the notion of forsaking old ideas and institutions in order to move forward. This is paramount to the relationship between a dejected Luke Skywalker and Jedi acolyte Rey, who struggle to understand each other amidst a galaxy in crisis. In the film, writer/director Rian Johnson made a clear statement about the creation of art: moving on from established norms is necessary but impossible to accomplish without borrowing elements from the past. The Last Jedi succeeds as the latest entry to the Skywalker saga and a message to Star Wars fans that the franchise will lose its relevancy if it isn’t allowed to change.
The 2006 Ford Fusion also attempted a clean break from what came before. And the story of how Ford created the car is a real world example of exactly what Rian Johnson attempted to explain throughout the film: that the past influences and surrounds us whether we’re aware of it or not.
Like the Jedi before they were wiped out by Darth Sidious, the story of Ford in the late nineties and early 2000’s was one of hubris and failure. Under the stewardship of CEO Jacques Nasser, the company engaged in numerous acquisitions that led to a bloated mess of an organization. The development and subsequent failure of the CDW27 platform (Ford Mondeo/Contour and Mercury Mystique), the DEW architecture (Jaguar S Type, Lincoln LS, Ford Thunderbird), and the purchase of Volvo were budget-busting boondoggles. And previous cash cows like the Ford Explorer saw its sales drop precipitously as more fuel efficient and refined competitors like the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot arrived to do battle with the established SUV nameplates.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Dearborn. The F-150 and E Series held steady. Although a bit dated by 2005, the Focus still sold in respectable numbers. And Ford continued to benefit from its relationship with Mazda. With a controlling interest in the Japanese automaker, Ford was able to use their platforms for its small cars and coupes such as the Ford Probe, and ten years later the two companies collaborated on the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute, which also spawned a Mercury variant in 2004.
Under the tutelage of several Americans, including future Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields, Mazda underwent a bit of a renaissance in the early 2000’s. It was during this era that the Japanese automaker created its modern sedan lineup. The compact Mazda 3 instantly received praise for its sharp styling and sophisticated road manners. Mazda also introduced the 6, their mid size successor the 626. Like the 3, the 6 immediately won over the automotive intelligentsia for exactly the same reasons as its smaller sibling: it was good looking and it possessed excellent driving dynamics.
By 2002 it was clear the Taurus, once critically acclaimed for its styling and handling just like the new Mazda sedans, needed to be replaced. While the fourth generation sedan offered lots of space for not a lot of coin, the 2002 Toyota Camry surpassed it in refinement and the 2003 Honda Accord beat it in just about every other metric.
It’s understandable why Ford saw the 6 as a valuable foundation for its future sedan. Building an entirely new vehicle architecture requires money. And Ford didn’t have any cash to spare due to its global obligations and inefficient management of its own resources. But in this specific case Ford used its assets wisely. Development costs related to the 1996 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable came in at around three billion dollars. That was a lavish expense compared to the one billion dollars Ford spent to create the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, and Lincoln Zephyr. It was also a significant departure from the norm.
Traditionally, Ford’s American mid size sedan platforms were developed, engineered, and sold exclusively within the United States. And for the previous two decades that sedan was the Taurus. The pitiful descent of the bull into rental car fodder easily justified the creation of a new nameplate, but it was still somewhat of a risky move, as any change away from an established nameplate can be.
Was this process radically different from past practices? Yes and no. The Fusion would not use a vehicle architecture from Ford. That was unorthodox. A Japanese company with a steady stream of Americans at the helm was also highly irregular. That was the situation when Mark Fields was appointed CEO of Mazda in 2000. Fields was indirectly responsible for the creation of the “Zoom-Zoom” ad campaign that put the company back on track in America. And its very likely he had a hand in the development of the 6 as well, which in some ways also makes him responsible for the Fusion. Ford’s oversight of Mazda created a Mazda that would later be used as the basis for a Ford. In an extremely roundabout way it was business as usual.
The unconventional approach that characterized the Fusion’s development was a step forward for the company. Unfortunately, it also represented one step back. Throughout the 90’s and 2000’s Ford continually flirted with the idea of streamlining its expansive vehicle lineup only to do an abrupt about face. The C1 platform represented the apotheosis of Ford Motor Company’s power. Ford, Mazda, and Volvo jointly worked on the architecture, which produced vehicles like the 2003 Mazda 3, the 2004 Ford Focus, and the 2004 Volvo S40. All three vehicles retained the identities of their respective companies while raising the bar for the compact and luxury compact segments. The trio were never accused of being badge engineered.
North America never received Europe’s second generation Ford Focus. When CEO William Clay Ford Jr. asked why, Jim Padilla told him the product cycles just didn’t match up. He never pushed back. Beyond that, the Ford Jr. era seemed to only intensify the petty factionalism within Ford. That is probably why the third generation Mondeo was never considered for the American market. This is all covered in American Icon: The Fight To Save Ford Motor Company, where there is also an anecdote about Ford of Europe engineering vehicles in a way that would make them unable to be certified for sale in the United States.
It’s a shame we never got the 2007 Mondeo, as its style perfectly bridged the gap between the fourth generation Taurus and the 2013 Fusion.
Then again, the Fusion offered a clean break from the Taurus, which had retained a lot of the ovoid design principles that made the 1996 model so controversial. The exterior designers who worked on the Fusion were clearly inspired by several models: the 2003 Cadillac CTS, Honda’s 2001 Prelude, and products within the Ford stable like the 427 concept and the first generation Ford Focus (which Ford considered calling the Fusion right before its official reveal in 1998).
The overall design was bold, yet simple and well proportioned. And it set itself apart from its competition, including the Mazda 6.
As for the underlying platform, Ford was able to talk to the Mazda engineers who designed the car. This resulted in 60 percent of the chassis being brand new. The Fusion also gained a 2.1 inch longer wheelbase and grew in total length by 3.4 inches in order to increase rear legroom and trunk space. Ford also softened up its ride and handling to increase overall comfort.
While the folks at Dearborn geared the Fusion more towards a 40 year old parent of two instead of a 25 year old just entering the workforce, the car didn’t really give up any of its handling prowess to the Mazda 6, or any of its competitors. Here’s a choice quote from Motorweek’s John Davis:
“Ride and handling delivered a near perfect balance between sport sedan and family cruiser, with hydraulic engine mounts keeping NVH low. Fusion is far more entertaining to drive than Camry or Accord. The six speed automatic’s reaction was very competent, shifting right in sync with constantly shifting inclines. The four’s five speed manual allowed quick, positive shifts. It felt a lot like the MX-5.”
Motor Trend also praised the Fusion for its nimbleness:
“The big difference between the Fusion and the Accord is that the Fusion behaves as though it enjoys this; to egg its driver on to miscreant behavior. The Accord may perform equally well (probably better in a straight line, thanks to an extra 19 horsepower), but it always seems to go about such tasks with dogged resignation. Its muzzled motor mutters, “Where’s the fire?” while the Fusion’s engine eagerly snarls for more, without shouting down the occupants (it’s tuned quieter than in the Mazda6).”
Ford seemed to understand that the Fusion was going to be well received upon its debut, and planned their ad campaign accordingly. I love how Ford touts the “class exclusive six-speed automatic” in this commercial with an immediate disclaimer that the Mazda 6 was arbitrarily excluded.
Then there’s this ad. Since Mercury had Jill Wagner to extol the virtues of the more conservative Milan, Ford could presumably appeal to a younger demographic with advertising that allowed them to be a lot less subtle. It’s worth exploring exactly what happens here.
A 2006 Ford Fusion owner pulls up to a drive-thru dry cleaners, which apparently is a thing that exists. A late model Mustang GT pulls in behind said Fusion.
Attractive Fusion Owner looks into her rear view mirror…
…and sees Attractive Mustang Owner.
Attractive Fusion Owner feels a stirring in her genitals. She hatches a plan.
Attractive Fusion Owner reveals her plan to the dry cleaner’s employee in two steps:
Step 1: pay for SOME of Attractive Mustang Owner’s bill, which is desperate, but not too desperate.
Step 2: politely ask dry cleaning lady to give her card to Attractive Mustang Owner.
Attractive Dry Cleaning Lady is briefly confused by the request…
…until she sees Attractive Mustang Owner, who now looks exactly like the type of guy who loses control of his Mustang while leaving a car show.
Attractive Dry Cleaning Lady feels a stirring in her genitals, as she would also like to bang Attractive Mustang Owner.
Attractive Fusion Owner, in a seat that is a lot warmer and substantially more lubricated than before, departs the drive-thru dry cleaners while fantasizing about her future encounter with Attractive Mustang Owner.
And that’s it. I’m actually a little surprised Ford didn’t put a disclaimer at the end of this ad denying legal culpability for in-vehicle sexual experiences so explosive they show up on the Carfax. Then again, I’m not a lawyer.
Ford’s ad agency was confident enough to also run some sassy print ads.
And it seems like they really liked the leather seats.
Speaking of the interior, while those seats were no doubt higher quality than the plastic thrones in the 2006 Taurus, the Fusion’s cabin was a bit of a mixed bag, and the sedan’s greatest weakness. The steering wheel, the dash, the door inserts, and other buttons were good quality that were probably on par with the Accord and Camry.
Unfortunately, the gauges paled in comparison to the premium looking backlit setup in the 2003 Accord.
And the Fusion, along with the Milan, suffered from the scourge of green back lighting in general, a practice that was just starting to fade before the debut of the CD3 trio. Ford’s ubiquitous double DIN audio unit didn’t help things either.
The Ford also arrived a bit half baked. A navigation system didn’t arrive until the 2007 model year, along with Sirius Satellite Radio. ABS and full side curtain airbags were late additions to the standard equipment list as well. You could also criticize the first generation Fusion for its “Altezza” style tail lights, but that fad (and pretty much all the cars they were attached to) died out years ago, which ultimately contributes to the Fusion still looking good over ten years after its debut, at least in my opinion.
For all its faults, the Fusion more than made up for them with its brazen design and athletic character. Although it was a minor miracle the 2006 Fusion and its siblings turned out the way they did. After the success of the original Taurus, Ford kept looking at what their mid size could be instead of understanding what it was at that particular moment in time. A certain green colored alien has an explanation for all of this in his conversation with Luke in The Last Jedi:
“Skywalker, still looking to the horizon. Never here, now, hmm? The need in front of your nose.”
“Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
What is the true burden of all automakers? Progressively making each successive generation of a vehicle a bit better than before without screwing it all up (probably). When redesigning the Taurus for the 1996 model year, Ford looked to the stars, and the end result was failure. Ten years later the company correctly ascertained what they needed and wanted from a mid size sedan without getting over indulgent. And their reasonable approach produced an extremely competent car.
The Fusion truly was a combination of the old and new Ford. Ford’s immense empire finally got a bit more rationalized when the company decided to use its assets from Mazda and Volvo to create the vehicles it needed. Its legacy is slightly diminished by the Blue Oval’s inability to completely integrate all of its mid size sedans onto one single platform, an issue that was solved with Alan Mulally and the One Ford initiative some years later.
More specifically, Ford’s Fusion was a mix between the good and the bad that typically came out of Dearborn. With its fresh styling and European inspired driving dynamics, the Fusion picked up the torch lit by the 1986 Taurus. And it also followed in the path of its storied predecessor with all the baggage related to the Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ. Those vehicles likely stole development resources away from the Ford, a result that left the car with an interior that was less than ideal.
With significant critical praise, the Fusion revived Ford’s reputation in the mid size segment. But like The Last Jedi, it was never going be as game changing as the 1986 Taurus. Luke Skywalker didn’t take down all the bad guys himself like so many misguided fans wanted him to. And Star Wars might never recapture the magic that made the original trilogy so incredible. Completely vanquishing the Japanese was impossible in such a mature segment. And thats okay. On the merits, they’re both great products. Nostalgia can only go so far. Sometimes old things need to die. Rian Johnson and Ford did just that, while preserving the best of what we’re familiar with, be it a car or space fantasy.
COAL: 2006 Ford Fusion SE – My Stainless Steel Maytag by Magnum SRT8 Brian