The Ford Fusion Hybrid. The Ford Fusion Hybrid. Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company via FlickrNo green spin necessary, the Ford Fusion Hybrid sedan was soundly voted the 2010 Car of the Year. While not the first-ever hybrid vehicle to win this award (even for Ford), it is notable that the 2010 North American Car of the Year (NACOTY) was given to a U.S. automaker for a hybrid amidst one of the worst times to be selling any kind of car, much less a hybrid. And yet, the Fusion Hybrid helped Ford set record sales in hybrids in a year when overall industry demand for gas-electric cars tanked, bolstering the appearance that Ford is doing something right.

The Fusion Hybrid beat out its non-hybrid version, the Fusion sedan, as well as three other 2010 green cars on the market: the Honda Insight, the Toyota Prius, and the Volkswagen Golf/GTI/TDI (a clean diesel Green Car of the Year Finalist). So what does the Fusion Hybrid deliver? As NACOTY juror Csaba Csere said, “Though not the first hybrid on the market, or even the second or third, the Fusion Hybrid is simply the best one ever built. In addition to delivering terrific mileage, it looks and drives like a regular car — and a very good one indeed.”

The only other hybrids to win this non-eco honor were the Toyota Prius in 2004 and the Ford Escape Hybrid (Truck of the Year) in 2005.

I learned more about the Fusion Hybrid at a press event last April, which included a good old-fashioned test drive and a close-up look at some of the features that buff the car’s eco-cred.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Smart Gauge.Photo courtesy rumblestripradio via FlickrMuch of the excitement about the Fusion Hybrid centered around Ford’s innovative approach to the type and amount of information communicated to the driver. Ford called this instrument cluster the “Smart Gauge with EcoGuide,” [PDF].  The driver sees two in-dashboard LCD screens which, at a glance, tell the driver (nicely) whether to ditch the lead foot or keep the good times rollin’. The idea is that the EcoGuide is a friendly coach, rewarding the driver’s efficient driving behavior with lush digital green vines and leaves. Obviously, the more leaves, the better.

Smart Gauge.Photo courtesy karend via FlickrIt is designed to benefit the regular driver, who can learn how to improve mileage on daily commutes, and is aided by a summary screen of information at the end of each trip. I was skeptical of the “green leaves” cliche, but it turns out that people preferred this imagery in tests because it is easy to understand and doesn’t distract or overwhelm the driver with excessive data (a wee bit of a problem when you’re cruising 65 miles per hour).  And there are other settings, aside from the leaves, to display the same instantaneous fuel economy statistics.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

EPA ratings put the Fusion Hybrid at 41 miles per gallon (mpg) city and 36 mpg highway, although some test drivers report more than 50 mpg.  Nancy Gioia, Ford director of Global Electrification, pointed out, “Driver behavior counts … when you get it right, the car lets you know.” Aggressive drivers may see fuel economy increases of up to 15 percent as compared to the more conscientious drivers, who may only see a 3 percent increase.

In addition to fuel economy, the “fun to drive” factor and smooth transition between electric and gas engines contribute to the Fusion Hybrid’s popularity. In fact, it outscored every other Ford vehicle ever in customer satisfaction. But does the car give up any efficiency to get that extra juice on the highway?

“We haven’t sacrificed anything for the additional horsepower,” claims Gioia. “What we’ve really done is optimized both the engine and the electric machines to work in combination delivering that fantastic, fun-to-drive experience … What we’ve tried to do is take a mid-sized sedan and make it, as it is, the most fuel-efficient mid-sized sedan in North America.”

Fifty top automotive journalists in North America agree that this makes the Fusion Hybrid the Car of the Year.

As for me, while it was fun to zoom around in a peppy, smooth-rolling hybrid, with green leaves spilling off the dashboard, I’ll still be waiting for the day when the Car of the Year is awarded to my favored vehicle of transport — the bus.