When it comes to cars, qualifying is usually associated with racing, but that is not always true. Along with what goes on in Gasoline Alley, qualifications are being made on Madison Avenue every day.

Case in point:

When Ford introduced the 2010 Fusion Hybrid at the Los Angeles Auto Show last November, it was billed as "America's most fuel efficient midsize car.” With an impressive EPA rating of 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, few people batted an eye at the claim. Unfortunately, the ones that did all worked for Toyota.

Despite its compact dimensions and appearance, based on passenger volume the 50 mpg Toyota Prius is technically a midsize car. It was a detail that was missed by the marketing gurus working for Ford and left the folks at the blue oval blue in the face.

Click here for VIDEO of the Fusion in action

Lucky for them ad men don't give up that easily. After a scotch and cigarette-fueled all-nighter peppered by inappropriate comments directed at the girls in the secretary pool...oh, wait, I’m thinking of an episode of "Mad Men". Actually, every episode of "Mad Men".

In any event, during a moment of clarity worthy of the word "eureka" being yelled across the conference room table, some overpaid smarty pants realized that while it is indeed midsize, the Prius is also a hatchback. Hence the Fusion Hybrid's new tag line: "The most fuel efficient midsize sedan."

Face saved. Now where did that scotch go?

As the second most fuel efficient midsize car in America, then, the Fusion Hybrid has little to be ashamed of. The gas mileage speaks for itself, especially when compared to the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which is the car that Ford was really trying to beat all along. That sedan gets what used to be an impressive 33 mpg city/34 mpg highway, and is soundly trounced around town by the $27,270 Ford, which qualifies for a $1,700 federal tax credit until October when it drops to $850. Thanks to the sucess the company has had selling hybrids, Ford joins Honda and Toyota in completely losing the credit for its cars in April 2010.

Click here for more information on the New Energy Tax Credit program

The Fusion Hybrid benefits from the same extensive makeover that all Fusions have undergone for 2010, including a fresh face and fanny, as well as an upgraded interior. The new exterior takes cues from Ford’s European cars and melds them with the now familiar Gillette Fusion razor-inspired grille found across the lineup here in the US. That may sound like a recipe for ugly, but the result is refreshingly sporty and a great improvement over what was previously a frumpy 4-door.

Inside, most of the stiff plastics found in the previous car have been replaced by soft-touch stuff that feels great and makes for a much quieter cabin. Sadly, the interior designers seem to have just traced over the old dashboard and filled in the blanks with new material, leaving it with a dated look that should fit right in at the Hertz parking lot.

Leather seating is available, but my test car came with green seats. Not the color - that was medium light stone which is as exciting as a pet rock - but rather the upholstery, which is made from recycled material, and the soy-based foam cushions that may come in handy if you get the munchies on all the long road trips you’ll be taking in this fuel-miser. Ford says the fabric is 85 percent post-consumer. I say it is 85% dull, with a napped surface and saggy fit that doesn’t inspire confidence that it will last the life of the car, let alone a couple of years of airport rental duty. It is comfy, though.

Where Ford clearly put in a lot of extra effort is on the technology front. You can get everything from a Bluetooth phone and Ford’s voice-activated Sync system, to a backup camera with a monitor hidden in the rearview mirror and a “cross traffic alert” feature which sounds an alarm if a vehicle or person is approaching from either side as you back out of a parking space. Blind spot monitoring comes standard for when you are going forward, but would rather to go left or right.

It’s all very modern and competitive, but hardly revolutionary. The same can not be said for the Fusion Hybrid’s instrument cluster, which isn’t a really a cluster at all.

Dubbed ‘SmartGauge’ by the marketing gurus, a lonely, centrally-positioned speedometer is bookended by flat screen monitors that can be configured to deliver a variety of information that goes a long way beyond the typical power flow animation usually found in hybrid vehicles. In fact, the Fusion is the first car since the Volkswagen Beetle to truly embrace the spirit of flower power.

Click here for PHOTOS of the Fusion

Drive in an environmentally friendly way, and the screen starts filling up with vines and leaves like the yard of that neighbor who hasn't been seen in quite some time. You should probably check on him.

The display is very gimmicky and doesn't change quickly enough to be of much practical use, but is more of a touchy-feely pat on the back for good behavior. As the flora snakes its way around the screen, however, you will eventually notice the other readouts that will actually help you improve your mileage.

There is a typical instantaneous miles per gallon gauge, and the inevitable flow chart, but the coolest one is a sliding scale that shows you exactly how much throttle you can give the Fusion Hybrid before the gasoline engine kicks in to help out the electric motor. It takes all of the guesswork out of staying in EV mode as often as possible, but can be frustrating if you let it get out of hand.

The carrot is always in motion, adjusting with the speed of the car and the charge of the battery. You need one eye on the gauge, one on the road, and one on your right foot to maximize your efficiency and make those leaves bloom. If you walk the tightrope long enough the real payoff isn't a screen full of green, but a top electric speed of 47 miles per hour. That's the fastest any hybrid can accelerate to without using gasoline, and about twice what you're lucky to coax out of most others. Even for a jaded journalist who's seen one too many electric cars lately, it’s pretty darn cool.

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Of course, an easier way to achieve this emissions free velocity is to just get up to speed like a normal person, take your foot off of the pedal to kill the gasoline engine, then lightly touch it again, which switches the Fusion to electric mode.

Again, darn cool.

It's a parlor trick, to be sure, but also a reminder that the Fusion Hybrid is packing a potent proton pusher under the hood. The electric motor alone is good for 106 horsepower. To give that perspective, the combined output of the gas-electric powertrain in the Honda Civic Hybrid is only 110 hp.

Add the pistons, and the Ford maxes out at 191 hp. This makes for a reasonably brisk ride, but the soft and floaty suspension will discourage you from exploring its limits.

Like all hybrids, the brakes on the Fusion are regenerative, which means they feed some of the stopping power back into the battery pack. Unlike all hybrids, you'd never know it. Ford has exorcised the middle pedal of the odd feeling that cars with this system usually have. It is as numb and cushy as the rest of the car.

Grandpa would love it.

Driving like him I had no trouble getting more than the advertised mileage, either trolling around suburbia, or observing the posted speed limits on the interstate. For those who practice the dark art of hypermiling, 50 mpg is well within reach. Just don't try to pulse and glide your way in front of me, ok?

As it turns out, a team from Ford that included NASCAR racer Carl Edwards recently used such techniques to drive a Fusion Hybrid 1,445 miles on public roads averaging an incredible 81.5 mpg, setting a world record in the process.

The record is for midsize sedans.

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2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Base Price: $27,270

Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Powerplant: 2.5L inline-4 cylinder w/permanent magnet AC synchronous motor

Power (NET): 191 hp

Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Automatic

MPG: 41 city/36 hwy

What do you think of the Fusion Hybrid?

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