I thought no car could coax me away from the comfort of an automatic transmission, especially for the bumper-to-bumper crawl of "rush" hour. The few manual transmissions I've sampled have been OK, but they were on small cramped cars with barely acceptable rides. The five-passenger Fusion says it doesn't have to be that way. You can enjoy a more spacious vehicle, be more involved with driving, and pocket the $850 cost of the usually optional automatic.

The pleasure of driving the midsized Fusion comes in part from the smooth and light clutch and the crisp shifter. Cars with automatic transmissions ask for little involvement. The Fusion asks that you engage your mind, not just your right foot, and it responds with a low-stress and entertaining experience, even in traffic.

That's possible because the torque band on Ford's 2.3-liter I4 is wide enough to let the car slow to 35 mph in fifth and still accelerate to highway speeds, without engine complaints. You can perform similar feats in other gears as well, so you don't have to do a lot of shifting as traffic slows and quickens.

And when you must shift, the clutch engages smoothly with little effort and no vibration. In fact, let the pedal up a bit and the car creeps. That's useful when backing out of parking spaces where control is more important than speed. And the shifter just clicks into gears.

Now you're thinking: what kind of performance can you get out of a 2.3-liter engine? It must be anemic, especially with gear ratios stacked for a 31-mpg highway rating (if you believe the EPA). Surprise again. You can do a lot with 160 hp and the right gear. For instance, in a second-gear experiment with the tach headed toward 4,000 rpm, Mrs. D. began forcefully insisting I slow down. She was quite taken aback with acceleration you might describe as neck snapping. It's almost as brisk in third gear, which makes merging on busy freeways no great chore. The engine sports variable timing on the intake valves to help produce that power, and it lets the engine purr quietly at stop lights.

The ride is also smooth and quiet, more like a larger car. An independent suspension all around helps. And the interior is modern, attractive, and uncluttered as you'd expect. A few notable features include front-seat side air bags, a 17-gallon tank, and fourwheel power-disk brakes.

Base price for the four-door Fusion SE is $18,155. Not bad. With accessories (appearance package: $395, antilock brakes: $595, upgraded sound system: $420) the sticker climbs to $20,460. Still not bad. Newspaper listings showed SE model prices below $19,000.

We calculated 26.2 mpg after a week of mostly city driving. Oddly, the EPA gives models with manual and automatic transmissions the same mileage estimates, 23/31 city/highway. But the manual has hidden advantages: It's 57-lb lighter and less expensive. With street prices below $19,000 and respectable mpg figures, I'd say skip the automatic and stick with the stick.

— Paul Dvorak