Kicking off a two-pronged strategy to replace the Taurus after the 2006 model year, the larger 2005 Five Hundred offers a more sophisticated package that will be joined by the leaner Fusion in fall 2005. Sold in three series (SE, SEL, and Limited), the Five Hundred is offered only as a four-door sedan only--consider the Ford Freestyle
crossover as a companion station wagon. The Five Hundred's other family relation is the Mercury Montego
, a functionally identical sedan distinguished by minor trim and appearance changes. Recognizing that many auto buyers have gravitated toward sport/utility vehicles, Ford
infused the Five Hundred with qualities people like in SUVs, specifically, available all-wheel drive, a higher-than-normal seating position, and a spacious interior.
Although the Five Hundred is an all-new car, it looks vaguely familiar. Where the Taurus was a fresh, even brazen design when it debuted, the Five Hundred body is derivative, sharing more than a few lines with the stately 2005 Volkswagen Passat, itself redesigned for 2006. While the competing Chrysler 300's styling is certainly distinctive--and has helped make that rear-drive sedan a hot-seller--its high window line and low roof make the car much harder to see out of than the more conventionally styled Five Hundred. By taking the conservative route, Ford designers have ensured ready styling acceptability, but we suspect the nicely proportioned Five Hundred may end up blending anonymously into the automotive landscape after a couple production years.
Generous cabin space and a command seating position are two of the Five Hundred's major strong points. In fact, despite it being a foot shorter overall than the full-size Ford Crown Victoria, efficient packaging makes the Five Hundred roomier inside, with the back seat particularly expansive. The car seats five--no front bench is offered--and is exceptionally comfortable in all places. Passengers sit much higher above the floor than is typical in a sedan (up to four inches higher than in some competitors), putting the seating position between that of a conventional sedan and a minivan.
Yet, the Five Hundred is not as tall as an SUV, so no big climb up is required to get inside. The comfortable perches and excellent ingress/egress make the Five Hundred a compelling choice for those with limited mobility and parents with small children. Short drivers should make sure the high seating position doesn't force them to sit too close to the steering wheel. If that's the case, a possible remedy would be to order the optional power-adjustable pedals, which move closer to or farther from the driver's seat. (The powered pedals are available on the Limited for '05 and all models for '06.) The elevated seating position also makes for excellent outward visibility, but those who need extra reassurance when parking can opt for the reverse sensing system (proximity sensors in the bumper trigger a beep when closing in on an obstacle).
In addition to the raised seating position and uncommon space, the Five Hundred has another interesting feature: on the SEL and the Limited, the front passenger seatback can fold forward to lie flat, as can the rear seatback in all models. With both seats in cargo mode, items up to eight feet long can be loaded through the trunk and into the interior. The trunk itself measures 21 cubic feet, or eight golf bags, making it truly cavernous.
The interior design has a simple elegance, though some dash materials manage to look cheaper than they actually are. Smooth metal trim and soft surfaces lend a luxurious ambiance, with leather upholstery available to further dress up the interior in all models but the SE. The SEL and Limited models add wood-patterned appliqus, completing the premium treatment.
Based on the well-honed Volvo S80 platform, the Five Hundred has earned five stars in government front and side crash tests--a noteworthy achievement. For the most safety-minded consumers, side and curtain airbags are available. A recommended feature, the curtain airbags are designed to deploy in the event of a rollover or side impact, adding a proven extra measure of safety. Anti-lock brakes and traction control are standard on all models. Stability control isn't offered.
All Five Hundreds use a 3.0-liter/203-horse V-6; no optional engine is offered. A large car on a laudable platform, the Five Hundred was intended to launch with a stronger engine, but the powerplant development fell behind the car program, resulting in a significant compromise for its debut. Although trailing the competition by up to 62 horsepower (Nissan Maxima), the Five Hundred does boast two technically advanced transmissions: a six-speed automatic and a continuously variable automatic, or CVT. Unlike other transmissions, which have a fixed number of ratios (usually four, five, or six), a CVT has an infinite number of ratios, aiding performance and boosting fuel economy. The Five Hundred also has a key advantage in being offered in both front- and all-wheel drive configurations. Front-wheel-drive SEL and Limited models get the six-speed, while the base, FWD SE gets the CVT. The CVT comes standard with AWD.
Behind the Wheel
If you're considering one of the Five Hundred models with the CVT, be sure to take a test drive. Although it doesn't require anything special from the driver, the sensation of driving with the CVT is quite different from that of a car with a conventional automatic transmission. During acceleration, instead of hearing the engine revs climb, then drop with a shift, then climb again, a CVT-equipped engine's revs constantly climb to match the car's speed. Unfortunately, the Five Hundred's engine is not terribly refined and exacerbates the drivetrain feedback. The engine's greater problem--and the car's Achilles heel--is its lack of power. Acceleration is sluggish. The ride, though, is comfortable, and the car enjoys direct steering and competent handling, though it won't be mistaken for a sports sedan--or even a Chrysler 300--when it comes to spirited driving. When the livelier 3.5-liter V-6 comes on line in 2006, we expect the Five Hundred to become significantly more entertaining and desirable.
For non-enthusiast, mainstream buyers, the Five Hundred has a lot to offer. The available all-wheel drive is a boon to those who drive in inclement weather. The elevated seating position should appeal to anyone looking for better visibility, and the easy access should appeal to the elderly and people who load kids into car seats. The huge rear seat would make the Five Hundred a good choice for families with long-legged teenagers (who also might enjoy the available DVD player) and business types who often ferry colleagues. The oversized trunk makes this sedan a compelling alternative to a wagon or a crossover sport/utility vehicle. Anyone with a trailer to tow would likely exceed the 1,000-pound weight limit, but buyers with that need should probably look in other vehicle segments, anyway. In its first year, the Five Hundred had a strong showing in the IntelliChoice Ownership Cost analysis, with most models fairing Better than Average, a notable edge over the Crown Victoria and Taurus.
The Five Hundred is a large, versatile, well-executed sedan that craves a right-sized engine to complete its compelling package.
For 2006, Ford will make the Five Hundred's interior even more accommodating by offering an optional roof-mounted DVD player for rear-seat passengers. Front-seat occupants will have to be content with looking at the video screen of the new, optional navigation system.
The side and curtain airbags are essential safety items. All-wheel drive helps tame the weather, but it adds weight and lowers fuel economy. The rear-seat DVD player (from fall 2005) will be a hit with parents.
Others to Consider
Buick Lucerne, Chrysler 300, Toyota Avalon