Last weekend, I was fortunate to have the opportunity of participating in an event from Car and Driver/Road and Track named "Ride and Drive". I was invited to this because I am a long-time subscriber to Car and Driver magazine. It was an opportunity to compare three mid-size family-oriented sedans - The Toyota Camry, The Honda Accord, and the Ford Fusion.
In case you don't know, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord have been the two best selling automobiles in the United States for the past 12 years. At any given time during this period, one of those two cars has been number one and the other number two. Before that, Ford owned that honor with the Taurus from the mid '80s to the mid '90s.
It's a cold Saturday morning in Fontana at the California Speedway on the parking lot. About 30 of us are sitting on cold metal chairs slurping down coffee as we wait for the late-comers to sign up and file in. Finally, a guy gives us some basic instructions and breaks us into groups. He reminds us that we need to drive safely, be objective, and be thorough in our evaluation of these cars. We all are given clipboards with evaluation sheets where we are to comment on what we liked and didn't like about different aspects of the 3 cars.
Here is my evaluation summary of the three cars in the order I drove them. All three were the top of the line versions with leather and navigation systems and V6 engines:
Toyota Camry: If I can sum this vehicle up in one word, that word is "pleasant". The seats were made of soft, very comfortable leather. The carpeting was plush. The knobs and dials were all large and in reach. The displays were clear. Everything I touched had a solid feel to it - switches clicked, seats smoothly adjusted, and knobs turned easily. In driving it through the pylon cone track that was set up, it was very quiet and the ride was smooth. However, when it came to hard cornering, the tires protested easily. The Camry was easy to control but it had a low threshold in tight turns. All three of us in my driving group agreed on this. The Camry is a great family car, but not a great driver's car.
Ford Fusion: This was almost the anti-Camry. In another age, this would have been considered a luxury sports sedan. In today's hotly competitive world, however, it comes up short next to the Camry. The interior was black, first of all, which is not my color of choice (The Camry and Accord were a more pleasing tan color inside). The seats were firm to the point of being hard. The carpet was cheap. The insides of the doors were primarily plastic. Overall, it just didn't feel as good as the Camry inside. The gauges were sportier, but not necessarily better. The radio had too many buttons, which were tiny. On the other hand, when I was behind the wheel, it was much more fun than the Camry. The Fusion gripped, the steering gave excellent feedback and the seats, although they were too hard, had side supports which really helped when screeching around the tight turns on the track. The Fusion felt like it had more power than the Camry, even though, in actuality, it had 40 less horsepower. The only negative in driving it was that the engine made a loud roar when accelerating hard. As a passenger, I would rather be in a Camry. As a driver on a straight interstate highway, I'd rather be in a Camry also. However, on a curvy mountain road, I'll take the Fusion.
Honda Accord: Funny how things go. This one, I would put right in between the other two. The Honda had a nice feel to it . It was the roomiest, especially in the back seat. It was the only car where my head didn't graze the ceiling. I found no fault with the Accord's interior but it didn't quite feel as luxurious as the Camry. It did have great steering, right up there with the Fusion. I found it's limits sooner, though so it did not quite have the handling dynamics of the Ford.
After all this was done. It was obvious to me that this whole event was really about the Ford Fusion. I spoke with one of the professional drivers who was with us on our test drives. She confirmed that this was a Ford sponsored event but we weren't supposed to know that going in. To tell the truth, I already knew it as I had seen the TV commercials where ordinary folks who had just participated in the event were giving glowing praise of the Ford Fusion. I had even been pre-interviewed by a man with a camera crew. Unfortunately, I gave my truthful opinions as I stated above so don't look for me to be on TV anytime soon.
I don't mind having gone to this event under a somewhat false pretense. I did have a little problem at the end of my time there. After submitting my clipboard containing my opinions, I was directed to a new covered area which turned out to nothing less than a Ford Fusion showroom. There were several Fusions on display and commercials running on monitors. A Ford spokesman then told us that Ford was out to show that an American car can compete and beat the Japanese imports.
That's the real kicker to me. I am well aware of the fact that the Fusion is made in Mexico, the Toyota Camry is made in Kentucky, and the Honda Accord is made in Ohio. I wrote about this last July in What is an American Car? Not only that, the Fusion is really a Mazda 6 underneath while the Camry and Accord were actually specifically designed by Americans for the American market. I pointed this out to the spokesperson. When I did, one of the drivers, who happened to be nearby and heard me, chuckled knowing that I was right. The spokesman pointed out that even though the Fusion is made in Mexico, the profits go to Dearborn Michigan (Ford's headquarters). I told him I would rather my car-buying dollars supported the people who built and worked in the plants. I am much more sympathetic to the welders, machinists, and assembly workers than to a few suits in some corporate office. Honda and Toyota invested in American workers while Ford is obviously getting out of the United States in terms of actual production of their product.
Interestingly enough, Ford has reported this week that they lost 12.7 billion dollars in 2006. The company is in real trouble and will diminish in the market significantly if it survives at all. This saddens me as my family has mostly been a "Ford family". My father said they were the best cars he ever owned and I've always loved Mustangs and Thunderbirds and I still do. However, if Ford is going to build Japanese-designed cars in Mexico and attempt to pass them off as American cars, I'll have little sympathy for them as the company fades into oblivion.