Modest but so becoming - The Ford Fusion is a five-seat, four-door sedan that gets about 30 miles to the gallon and costs around $20,000. In tough times, that can be attractive. Filling the gap Dan Neil, Times Staff Writer THIS is no time to sneer at mere competence. And while it's true the new-for-2006 Ford Fusion midsize sedan doesn't exactly incandesce in the driveway, it has a well-rounded adequacy about it, a wholesome middle-ness, a pleasant sense of expectations met. The satisfaction of the new Ford Fusion is the same as laundry all folded and put away — quietly important and necessary to an ordered world. Despite the dizzy, amped-on- energy-drink marketing campaign Ford has planned for the Fusion this fall — a veritable cluster-bombing of broadcast and print ads, music tour sponsorship, crunky websites and, of course, NASCAR — the Fusion is straight-up domestic transportation, and I wonder if Ford isn't missing the sense of the moment. As a nation — and as an audience for marketing — we have all had a pretty significant reality check recently, and for reasons that might be called sudden clarity, nothing seems quite so sane and timely, even sexy, as a five-seat, four-door sedan that gets 30 miles to the gallon and costs around $20,000. Is it too subtle a message to emphasize a sense of proper proportion? Also, it doesn't hurt that, at a time of rising anxiety over American economic security, the car wears a domestic badge (though it is assembled in Mexico). Let's chalk the field a bit. Slightly smaller than the Five Hundred (which replaced the Taurus), the Fusion — based on the Mazda6 platform — plugs a hole in the blue-badge lineup, which has long lacked a head-to-head competitor for the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, as well as cars such as the Chevy Malibu and the Hyundai Sonata. It's got the look The Sonata, with its Camry-like execution and loads of standard features, has emerged as the car to beat in feature-for-dollar comparisons. The Fusion suffers a bit in that it doesn't offer anti-lock brakes, traction control or side airbags as standard features, and stability control is not offered at all (the Sonata GLS model includes all as standards). The Fusion's 3.0-liter V6 (221 hp) is less powerful than the Hyundai's 3.3-liter V6 (235 hp), but the Ford is a couple of hundred pounds lighter. The Ford comes standard with a fluid-shifting six-speed automatic, the only one in its class. Basically, the Ford spots the Hyundai about $1,000. At the moment it appears Ford will launch the car with price incentives in tow, which will probably zero out that difference. The base model ($17,995) is powered by a 2.3-liter inline four (160 hp) with variable-valve timing — an engine clean enough to pass California's PZEV standard — and comes mated with either a five-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. The V6 — also with variable-valve timing — is paired only with the six-speed automatic. Our test car was a V6-powered SEL, with side air curtains, side airbags, 17-inch rims, ABS, traction control and premium interior trim, and the lot is priced at $24,935. Ford will happily associate the Fusion with the "Ford 427" concept car that appeared at the Detroit auto show in 2003. OK, sure, but where is the credit obviously due to the designer of the Gillette multi-bladed razor? Like some of its European competitors (Volkswagen's Passat), the Fusion leads with a big, chrome chin. Ford describes the headlight assemblies — a combination of squares and circles — as "squircles." How fun is that? Savvy deployment of brightwork around the head and tail lamps, trunk lid, bumper breather, fog lights and dual exhaust give the car a fooling upscale look. I took one to an L.A. restaurant over the weekend and the valets gave the car pride-of-place parking next to a Jaguar XJ. I suspect this was an effect of sheer novelty. Generally, the car is pretty sedate visually, as the styling had to yield to the logic of three-box family sedan packaging. The interior design is sober and well ordered, with lots of soft touch materials and textures giving the car a friendly feeling. Ford will offer the car in three "environments" — medium light stone, camel and charcoal-black, and black monotone. Our test car had the black-on-black theme with oatmeal-colored seat stitching. Faux wood and a pretty decent piano black trim set off the environments. There were no rattles or squeaky fittings in our test car, but a close inspection revealed trim pieces that didn't quite line up and margins that varied slightly around panels and fascia. This is the sort of thing early production cars are prone to as trim workers groove their routines. Wheel feel Though it initially appears snug, the back seat actually turns out to be pretty comfortable, even with the driver's seat all the way back, and the extra inch or so of width — compared to the Mazda6 — feels like more. The best qualities of the car are the subtle degrees of quiet and refinement. Cabin isolation, door sealing and sound deadening all exceed my expectations in this price category, low though they are. The tuning out of wind noise is best in class, to my ear. What's odd is that the car's aerodynamic drag coefficient is an unremarkable 0.328. I would have expected more wind noise in a car that was dragging through the air so inefficiently. The isolation of the suspension from the chassis is likewise excellent; hydraulic engine mounts keep engine vibration and noise pretty well out of the cabin, which is a good thing because the engine howls a bit under a full load. The smartest single bit of engineering to me is the rock-solid feel in the steering wheel. The rack-and-pinion steering and column are isolated from the chassis (and therefore the oscillating suspension) by a front perimeter subframe with generous couplings at all points. The steering feel is heavy, taut and accurate and it makes driving the car hard more fun than it properly ought to be. As for handling, the car has much the same balanced agility as its platform-mate Mazda6, but I think the ride might be better. Tires, perhaps? To tell the truth, I was kind of dreading this car. I thought it might be like the Ford Five Hundred, which is cousin to the Mercury Montego, which I found to be a floppy, shaky mess of a car. Instead, the Fusion is more like the Focus, which I love — a tight, lightweight piece that doesn't surpass in any one category but wins you with its well-rounded portfolio. The Fusion is a modest car for times when modesty, if not humility, is much in order. American car FINAL THOUGHTS - Game-tying base hit.