My first drive of the 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid took place under rather bizarre circumstances at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Because a lot of potential exhibitors went missing this year, the usually crowded basement of Cobo Hall (often home to second-tier players) was more or less empty.

To take advantage of the football-field-sized space, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation created the EcoXperience, a veritable forest — with real trees, bushes, plantings of all kinds! — and a winding road running through it. It was an unsettling mix of enchanted forest and LA in the making, since we were emitting fumes in a closed basement. To drive, you had to sign up, take a breathalyzer test, then get a chance to take a few eco-vehicles around, all at speeds of 20 mph or less.

I had time for a quick spin in one of my favorite battery electrics, the Mitsubishi I-MIEV, which is undergoing testing by utilities in California, and then the Ford Fusion (priced from $27,270). Low-speed trials are not necessarily indicative, but the car seemed very smartly executed to me and amazingly quiet, with its electric elements well integrated.

Ford wants its customers to know that the Fusion and its Mercury Milan cousin (which travel 700 miles on a tank of gas, and 47 miles on batteries alone) can take advantage of the maximum $3,400 federal tax credit. The car’s impressive 41 mpg city/36 highway fuel economy helps it get there. Purchase the older Escape or Mariner hybrids and the credit is only $3,000 (the maximum before the 2010 model year).

Buy a Prius instead, and the credit is nada. Even the new Honda Insight for 2010 won’t be eligible. Why all the different numbers? The credits are based on volume of car sales, and the Japanese hybrids are already well past their quotas. And if you want the $3,400 credit for the Fusion or Milan, as explained by Edmund’s Green Car Advisor, you have to order the car through a dealer by March 31. After that, the credit is chopped in half, again because when sales quotas are met the credit shrinks.

Beyond the tax credit, other reasons to consider the Fusion/Milan twins include a lighter nickel-metal-hydride battery (with 20 percent more power than earlier hybrid systems), enhanced electronic throttle control reducing the amount of fuel the car needs to restart, and a regenerative braking system that can capture 94 percent of energy usually lost via friction in braking.

If buying American in this year of “Yes We Can” makes sense to you, these Fords are cars to consider, and then there’s that big tax credit.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Ford's Fusion Hybrid: From enchanted forest to tax credits
Ford's Fusion is fun to drive in a convention hall basement, and you can get a $3,500 federal tax credit, too.