Selecting the winner of the first-ever Hermance Vehicle Efficiency Award was a difficult choice. While we considered a range of vehicles, including diesels, battery electrics, gas-electric hybrids, and even those with state-of-the-art, direct-injection gasoline engines, our deliberations eventually narrowed the field to two vehicles: the 2010 Toyota Prius and the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid.

We picked the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, and it was a tough call.

The Prius, Latin for “prior” or “before,” was in fact the world’s first mass-market hybrid. It’s been the benchmark for technology over the dozen-plus years since its introduction, raising the bar with each new generation. There’s no doubt that the third-generation, 2010 Prius again raised the bar for the competition and it still comes out on top using the technical metric of high fuel economy. At the same time, the 2010 model has advanced on other metrics of performance and amenities, putting to rest past grumbles that a hybrid means trade-offs – which, obviously, never dissuaded its steadily growing list of customers.

Yet what Ford has accomplished in the Fusion Hybrid really does set a whole new benchmark. For one thing, it builds on what was already an outstanding product in the Fusion platform. Marrying a seamless, sophisticated hybrid powertrain to a highly competitive product, positioned solidly in the middle of the mainstream market, has proven to be a winning combination. It’s fun to drive and speaks of refinement all around, from handling and braking through comfort and convenience.

The word that most evokes the design and engineering accomplishment seen in the Ford Fusion Hybrid is integration. Any remnants of dissonance in joining the yin of gasoline with the yang of electricity—whether for the feel of regenerative braking or the twinge of motor-generator and engine transitions—have been erased. The result is a product that is indeed a feat of seamless fusion, one that truly creates a new paradigm for how hybrid cars should drive.

We believe the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid will stand the test of time as a product that, years from now, will mark the beginning of when hybrids became transparent in terms of how they operate. That’s a big deal. That’s not to detract in any way from the Prius; indeed, Toyota’s own commitment to taking each generation a quantum step forward challenged other automakers to do more than just catch up. Ford met and exceeded that challenge, and we believe that’s something Dave Hermance himself would have recognized.

The Fusion Hybrid makes no compromise in drivability and functionality, and it excels in terms of the human-car interface for the mid-market segment. It provides a big boost in efficiency, but without going so far on fuel economy that peppiness and other capabilities suffer. That’s surely a winning formula for getting hybrids further into the mainstream, leaving no excuses in terms of functionality and how the car relates to the driver.

There wouldn’t be a Fusion Hybrid if it weren’t for the Prius. We can picture Dave Hermance saying, “Ford raised the bar. Now, the auto industry will to have to respond.”