Well, not exactly prototypes. Ford invited us to hang with their engineering team who are responsible for testing whether upcoming models can handle the hot weather that we’re blessed with in the UAE. While all three of these cars — the 2013 Ford Fusion, the 2013 Lincoln MKZ and the 2013 Ford Ecosport — are already out in some other markets, the three cars that we drove are actually early pre-production models, and not cars that were just taken from a showroom in America or elsewhere. They’re being prepared for GCC release as 2014 models later this year.
Ford has apparently been shipping in engineers from the United States for the past few years now, serious about taking on the challenges of proper hot-weather durability. In fact, they’ve posted a few engineers in Dubai itself, headed by Ziyad Dallalah, who reports directly to Ford’s development team in the States.
All three cars were wired up with thermocouples to take temperature readings under the bonnet, on the roof and even around the driver’s headrest, with the engineer’s plugged-in laptop even keeping track of all the electronically-controlled mechanicals, such as the shifting behaviour of the transmission and the working of the a/c. We drove the cars, keeping in mind that these are unfinished examples and the final product will be better put-together.
First up was the Lincoln MKZ, a car that’s supposed to be a reboot of Ford’s luxury franchise that’s already gone through several reboots over the years. Surprisingly, our prototype was fitted with the 240 hp 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine option, rather than some sort of V6. And yet, the MKZ never felt underpowered, thanks to a solid dollop of torque at lower revs. It also handles well for a heavy front-wheel-drive sedan, thanks to electronic adaptive suspension. The ride is largely smooth and quiet, with a slight tinge of firmness due to the low-profile tyres, something BMW owners would be familiar with. The weighted steering and the linear brakes offer pretty decent feedback as well.
Inside, the cushy ventilated leather seats were more comfortable than any similar European luxo-sedan. The interior trim doesn’t appear to be as upscale as in, say, a Lexus ES, but the Lincoln has way more soft-touch areas, from top all the way to below knee-level. Unique bits include a button-operated gear “shifter” and a multimedia screen that has better touch sensitivity, although the touch “buttons” below the screen were annoying. The a/c was great, better than previous Ford products we’ve tested.
We then drove the Ford Ecosport, a small front-wheel-drive crossover powered by a 112 hp 1.5-litre 4-cylinder that’s aiming for the lucrative affordable poseur-SUV market. It is, expectedly, very casual on the acceleration front, revving hard while offering little forward momentum, but it settles down just enough at highway speeds with the help of a 6-speed automatic. It’s a bit on the noisy side, but it offers a surprisingly smooth ride for such a short wheelbase, while the handling is tight enough to have some fun. The brakes are decent enough, while the steering provides fair feedback.
The Ecosport may be in serious need of an EcoBoost engine, but what it isn’t lacking in is interior space. There’s ample legroom front and back, with just enough cargo room to match a tall hatchback. All cabin panels are hard-plastic, but they don’t feel as hollow as what the Japanese use. Only the armrests are cushily padded, while there is a high-mounted digital display for the stereo and other settings. The a/c is fairly good on this one too, as long as it’s left on a higher fan speed.
The final car, a new-generation Ford Fusion, was the one I was really looking forward to drive. This one is fitted with a 240 hp 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder. It’s undergoing evaluation to determine if it’s fit for our region, where we will only get the non-turbo 2.5-litre initially when the car goes on sale here after the summer. But the turbo engine is stunningly good, feeling more potent here than in the MKZ due to the Fusion’s lighter weight. Its torquey initial response is better than any Japanese V6 sedan, even though on the specs sheet, the Fusion appears to be down on horsepower. And its ride-handling balance is as good as it gets in this segment, with actual steering feedback and linear braking performance. Wind noise is fairly audible at highway speeds, although it’s no more noisier inside than any of its Japanese rivals.
Inside, the cabin is as spacious as a midsize sedan should be, and has soft-touch padding on all the right areas, although there are some hard-plastic bits on the doors and dash that remind you that this is not a premium vehicle, even though it drives like one. The touchscreen now has better response than any “Ford MyTouch” system we’ve used previously, while the a/c is great, as Ford’s engineers have openly stated that they’ve benchmarked it with Toyota. In fact, the GCC-spec cars will get upgraded a/c components compared to their American counterparts.
It’s great to see that Ford is catering to the Middle East market in such a big way now, going as far as modifying vehicles in the right areas by taking actual customer feedback into account. Today’s exercise was done to even take in some media feedback, and it will all be sent back to development team, along with the hot-weather data, for analysis and further fine-tuning before the final product hits the showrooms. Based on the kind of driving experience these so-called pre-production models provided, we believe Ford now has among the best ride-handling chassis engineers in the business. And the one car that stood out in particular, the Ford Fusion 2.0 EcoBoost, would be on our recommended list right now if it were on the roads already.
Photos by Jorge Ferrari.