Going After Families Who Want More
Although there's still room for basic, economical transportation in the family sedan segment, many consumers now expect their sensible rides to incorporate liberal doses of style, power, convenience items and safety measures. Some buyers even go looking for luxury ambience and sporty handling in a segment once written off for its blandness and lack of originality. You can thank nameplates like the Chrysler 300, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Passat and even the current-generation Honda Accord for adding an emotional element to family car ownership.
Not everyone has been quick to embrace this trend. For the last several years, Ford and Mercury have been hard-pressed to sell their family cars to anyone besides bargain hunters. Rental car fleets have helped the midsize Taurus maintain a steady presence on public roads, and naturally, there will always be takers for the full-size Crown Victoria, an institution among cab companies and police departments. But once low pricing and interior space are off the table, there aren't many reasons to buy. Next to the Accord, the Taurus and its Mercury Sable twin suffer for their unrefined drivetrains, subpar braking and handling and low-quality interiors that offer little in the way of style. Really, it's little wonder these two have fallen behind -- they haven't had a full redesign since 1996.
But help is finally on the way. An all-new sedan called the Fusion and built on a stretched Mazda 6 platform will succeed the Taurus at the lower end of the midsize sedan segment. Meanwhile, a larger sedan called the Five Hundred will slide in above the Taurus and Fusion in a bid for buyers who want a more premium family sedan. Mercury gets its own version called the Montego, and except for styling differences, the two are identical. The Fusion is still under wraps, but we recently spent a few hours driving the Five Hundred and Montego on Ford's Michigan Proving Grounds. While neither one will be in a position to pin down the leaders of the family sedan segment, both are solidly engineered, comfortable and attractive cars that will find their place in the mainstream. That's not a wholehearted endorsement, obviously, but the cars do have some unique advantages that could make them more successful than their looks might suggest.
The Five Hundred and Montego are the first Ford products to take advantage of the company's controlling stake in Volvo. They're built on the same platform Volvo uses for its S60 and S80 sedans, V70 and XC70 wagons and XC90 SUV, and make extensive use of Volvo safety and all-wheel-drive technology. Ford is upfront about this relationship, and indeed any mention of Volvo is apt to be a plus when you're selling family cars.
On the outside, the new Ford and Mercury are about the same size as a Chrysler 300. Their sheet metal is modern but unremarkable in appearance and, for better or worse, heavily derivative of the Volkswagen Passat's. On the inside, these cars offer just as much legroom as the spacious 300 but aren't quite as accommodating for hips and shoulders. If sitting up high is important to you, then you'll like the view from the driver seat. Ford calls the Five Hundred "a sedan derived from a crossover vehicle," and to that end the seating position is elevated (it's like sitting in a Subaru Outback); the car's beltline is relatively low and the side mirrors are large. Those who buy groceries in bulk will love what they find when they open the trunk -- at 21 cubic feet of capacity, this is the largest cargo hold in the sedan kingdom.
Scrutinize the cabin and it's apparent that designers put a lot of thought into creating an attractive and functional environment. In lieu of the shapeless dash and seats found in the Taurus and Sable, the Five Hundred and Montego have the crisp, clean lines popularized by the Passat. The Montego even gets the two-tone color scheme typical of most European-designed cockpits. The metallic-ringed gauges are contemporary in appearance and easy to read; the gauge packs in top-of-the-line Five Hundreds have cream faces while all Montego dials have gray backgrounds. Additionally, the controls are well organized for the most part, so that the driver rarely has to search around for the function she wants -- another major step forward from the Taurus/Sable.
The front seats are roomy enough to fit most drivers, yet the cockpit has a snug, almost intimate feel that we've never experienced in a Ford sedan. There's also a better compromise between soft cushioning and firm support than you typically get in domestic cars. Adjustable pedals are available on upper-line models, but we were disappointed to find that Ford decided not to offer a telescoping steering wheel. The one-touch up-and-down driver window is a nice convenience, but as always, we'd like to see this on both front windows if not all four.
Rear passengers are treated to equally spacious quarters as those in front, making these cars good bets for families with teenagers. We were not overly impressed by the cushioning back here, but we'll reserve final judgment until we're able to conduct a full road test. The rear seats fold flat in a 60/40 split and this, along with the fold-flat front-passenger seat, will allow owners to carry items up to nine feet in length inside the car, according to Ford.
Itinerant families will appreciate the array of storage areas and cupholders in the main cabin. Up front, there's a large center console container with liners, as well as a sizable dash-top container. In back, most models offer a generous storage compartment in the fold-down center armrest. To help keep beverages corralled on long trips, there are two large cupholders in the center console, two more in the rear armrest and bottle holders in all four doors.
As in recent domestic entries like the Chevrolet Malibu and Dodge Magnum, interior materials quality is hit or miss. Hits include the velour-type cloth upholstery that outfits base models and the handsome leather upholstery available on the upscale trims. The leather hides are gathered in the Five Hundred and perforated in the Montego. Faux aluminum trim is found in all models (though Mercurys get a bit more of it), and it does a respectable impression of real metal. Same goes for the wood grain trim present in most models -- it's not as plasticky as most of the fake stuff and adds a certain warmth to the cabin. (In Montegos with the more exotic gray Zepelli wood grain trim, there's a distinct chill to the cockpit.)
This all sounds fine, but as we examined the cabins of various test vehicles, we noted a number of brittle plastics and rubbery vinyls in areas that owners are likely to touch on a regular basis. These obvious cost-cutting measures are unfortunate, but if the rest of the package appeals to you, don't strike the cars from consideration just yet.
However roomy and comfortable these cars might be, when you're asking buyers to spend a little more on a premium family sedan, the driving experience is just as important. The power source for every Five Hundred and Montego is the workhorse 3.0-liter Duratec V6 previously seen in the Sable and Taurus. This V6 has never distinguished itself for performance or refinement, but some engineering tweaks and the addition of electronic throttle control provide smoother, quieter operation this year, according to Ford.
Output is little changed at 203 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque, putting the cars at an immediate disadvantage alongside the powerhouse V6s offered by many competitors. Had the company decided to spend money on technology like variable valve timing, it likely would have been able to achieve the bigger horsepower number that many consumers expect. Also consider that the Five Hundred and Montego weigh anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds more than the Sable and Taurus, further reducing their performance potential.
Fortunately, Ford spent money on a couple of new transmissions, both of which are worlds better than the clunky-shifting four-speed automatic in the Taurus/Sable. The first of these is a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which as you may have heard is a tranny with no fixed gear ratios -- instead it has an infinite number of ratios at its disposal and chooses whichever one best fits a given driving situation. Ford officials noted that the CVT is sourced from the same supplier that Audi uses, so reliability is not likely to be an issue. The other transmission option is a six-speed automatic which, by virtue of its extra gears (compared to the old four-speed), provides better acceleration and fuel economy.
Five Hundred and Montego drivers also have a choice between the usual front-wheel-drive layout and a winter-friendly all-wheel-drive setup. The all-wheel-drive system is the same electronically controlled Haldex unit used in Volvos and can therefore react quickly to front wheel slippage and transfer power to the rear wheels. In ideal traction conditions, it drives the front wheels only to maximize fuel economy. The CVT is standard on all AWD models. If you opt for front-wheel drive, you'll get the CVT on the base Five Hundred and the six-speed automatic on higher-line Five Hundreds and all Montegos. Traction control is standard across the board; on AWD models, it all allows for side-to-side torque transfers.
So how does it all work in practice? Well, acceleration is adequate on all Five Hundreds and Montegos. There's enough low-end torque for easy city driving, and the car gets up to speed with minimal fuss. We do expect that eventual owners will wish for a little extra midrange torque for passing at highway speeds and climbing grades, particularly when carrying a full load of family members and luggage (we had neither with us during our brief test-drive). Power delivery from the Duratec V6 is indeed smoother and quieter than it has ever been, but it still can't match the pleasant, even exhilarating soundtrack that you get with other six-cylinders in this segment. Moreover, Ford will need to offer a more powerful V6 if it ever hopes to attract customers coming off a Nissan Altima lease.
Interestingly, we didn't notice much difference in acceleration between the front-drive and AWD models. In fact, we'd be inclined to opt for an AWD model (or the base Five Hundred) just to get the CVT, which does the best job of keeping the V6 in the meat of its power band. The six-speed automatic performs acceptably, too, though, and is the better choice for buyers who aren't ready to give up the sensation of a transmission shifting. Although summer weather prevented us from trying out the AWD in inclement conditions, the Ford staff set up a light-duty off-road course. As we coaxed the cars up dirt slopes, the AWD system efficiently responded to traction loss, minimizing the amount of wheel spin we experienced.
Thanks to their Volvo-designed suspension bits, the Five Hundred and Montego offer far more refined ride and handling characteristics than any Taurus or Sable owner could imagine. Like the Focus, they offer a pleasant balance between smooth ride quality and responsive handling. During our brief test-drive, we couldn't help but compare them to any number of Volvo models: The cars are extremely predictable in the way they transition weight when negotiating tight turns. The steering is nicely weighted, and there's a fluid feel to it that the Taurus rack lacked. Ultimately, they're quite capable but not exactly entertaining, as Volvo-like understeer limits their handling potential in the turns. For the average buyer who spends most of his time going straight, their road manners should be ideal.
Depending on which trim level you select, you'll get either 17-inch alloy wheels and 215/60R17 Continental tires or 18-inch alloys with 225/55R18 Pirelli rubber. We weren't all that wild about the Continentals, which squealed plenty when taking turns at a brisk clip. In addition, both sets of tires created what we thought was an excessive amount of road noise when cruising at highway speeds. We're not sure whether this was due to the tires or inadequate insulation, but we'll see what the final verdict is when we conduct a full test.
Braking is another area in which Ford has made significant progress. All Five Hundreds and Montegos come with a full set of disc brakes, ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. These upgrades really pay off in real-world driving situations, as the brake pedal is reassuringly progressive and easy to modulate. We'll have to wait until we can do instrumented testing before we'll know how much stopping distances have improved over the Taurus and Sable, but from the driver seat, the cars seemed to be stopping much shorter.
Although we would have liked to see stability control on the equipment list (either Ford's AdvanceTrac or Volvo's DTSC), we can't argue with the company's efforts to provide passive crash protection for its customers. Optional on all models are side-impact airbags that protect front occupants' torsos and side curtain airbags that protect the heads of front and rear occupants.
Prices range from $22,795 to $26,795 for the Five Hundred and $24,900 to $28,800 for the Montego. This means they'll be taking on loaded Accords, Altimas and Camrys, as well as more upscale models like the 300, Legacy/Outback, Maxima and Passat. Accordingly, even lower-line trims are loaded with a livable amount of equipment. The Ford comes in SE, SEL and Limited trims, while the Mercury is available in Luxury and Premier versions only.
The Five Hundred SE starts you out with 17-inch wheels; a six-way power driver seat with manual lumbar adjustment; full power accessories, including a one-touch driver window; air conditioning; a CD player; and cruise control. The SEL adds an eight-way power driver seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, wood interior trim, an MP3-compatible in-dash CD changer, the fold-flat front-passenger seat, extra sound insulation and adjustable head restraints and air register for rear passengers. The entry-level Montego Luxury comes with most of this equipment and adds xenon headlights (exclusive to the Mercurys) and a handsome analog clock in the dash.
Step up to the Five Hundred Limited and you'll get 18-inch wheels, leather upholstery, a four-way power passenger seat with lumbar adjustment, seat memory, an upgraded audio system with a subwoofer, cream-faced gauges and the analog clock. In addition to that, the Montego Premier provides heated seats, perforated leather upholstery and gray Zapelli wood grain trim. Options you may want to consider for either sedan include a moonroof and a reverse-sensing system; lower-line models are also eligible for leather upholstery.
Family sedans are supposed to be practical, roomy and loaded with conveniences, and our few hours with the Five Hundred and Montego confirmed that they certainly meet that requirement. But buyers who spend upward of $25,000 will expect to connect to their family sedan on an emotional level: A VW Passat, for example, offers both a luxurious interior and an engaging driving experience. While people may purchase one out of necessity, a Passat ultimately becomes a treasured member of the family. And we're not sure the Five Hundred and Montego can fulfill this part of the deal. Yes, they're stylish and comfortable on the inside, but materials quality is below import standards. Yes, they offer refined driving dynamics, but the Duratec V6 is hardly a source of entertainment. If you're looking for a sedan that can swallow up a family of five that never travels light, these cars are definitely worth consideration, but if you're looking for more than a utilitarian implement, the Five Hundred and Montego may not be up to speed.