Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
The new Ford Five Hundred represents an opportunity for the manufacturer to hit a home run in the sedan market (you know, kinda like the Chrysler 300). For far too long, brands like Ford, Dodge and Chevy have neglected their cars in favor of SUVs. Perhaps they've been drunk on SUV profits or self-satisfied with halo heritage cars that look cool but don't ultimately sell. Still, one could argue it really hasn't mattered all that much, as new car shoppers seem to have all but forgotten about domestic sedans.
Compare the average Ford sedan to a Honda or Toyota and virtually all hope is lost if you're one who longs for a day when U.S.-brand automobiles dominate the market as well as the landscape. But the tide is turning a bit. Chrysler's proud-to-be-an-American 300 is a stellar example of what can happen when Detroit throws out the rulebook and looks to develop an all-new product chock-full of value, performance and style.
A far cry from the Chrysler 300, the 2005 Ford Five Hundred is still a credible attempt at building a top-notch sedan. It's a good-looking car that boasts both quality and value -- value being key in the Five Hundred formula. On paper, the Five Hundred hits all the marks and looks to be a car that will change the image of Ford sedans. There's only one problem with the car, and it's a big one. But we'll get to that later.
Ford has been promising improved interiors for some time now, and the new F-150 and Expedition were the early recipients of Dearborn's new direction. Thankfully, we feel confident in adding the Five Hundred to the list of recently redesigned Fords that offer impressive interiors and more deluxe accommodations. In Limited trim (the trim of our test car) especially, the Ford Five Hundred comes off more like a near-luxury car than a budget-priced family sedan. The dash area is well laid out and attractive with cream-colored gauge faces surrounded by metallic rings that add an extra hint of class. The center stack is functional but lacks the pizzazz of the gauge cluster.
The Limited's interior has plenty of faux wood trim and a material that looks like brushed aluminum. Of course, it's not really aluminum, but both the fake wood trim and metallic accents are very convincing. On the downside, the leather is not as soft as expected and pales especially when compared to the leather found in the Toyota Avalon.
One thing the Five Hundred certainly does not lack is interior space. The cabin is large and airy with lots of glass to let light in. The rear seat is by far the roomiest we've seen in any $25,000 car, topping even the well-proportioned Chrysler 300 in terms of legroom. Cars like the Chevy Impala and Nissan Maxima also offer roomy rear seats, but the Five Hundred has that extra bit of room that really makes the car feel luxurious. The trunk is equally large with a generous 21 cubic feet of storage space. The only bummer in all this is that while the interior is roomy, the front-seat footwells feel a bit cramped.
The front seats are comfortable and provide enough cushioning without being overly soft. As the Five Hundred and Freestyle share a platform, the Five Hundred feels like it rides a little higher than a typical sedan. While this might not sound significant, it makes the car more comfortable to get in and out of and offers the driver a more commanding view of the road. It may be a gimmick but it does seem to work.
On the road, the Five Hundred performs well with a sportier than expected attitude. The steering is quick and light and the 18-inch wheels are backed up by sticky Pirelli tires. These tires provide more than adequate grip and seem almost lavish given the Five Hundred's budget-friendly price. Through the slalom we noticed some body roll, but the movement was well controlled and predictable. While we wouldn't say cornering is flat, it is an enjoyable car to drive hard. Thankfully, the Five Hundred's slightly sporty handling doesn't come at the expense of a comfortable highway ride. At speeds above 50 mph, a fair amount of road noise creeps into the cabin but wind noise doesn't make itself known until 75 mph or so. The continuously variable transmission (CVT), standard on all-wheel-drive models such as ours, helps to keep engine noise down at highway speeds -- the net result is a very pleasant and well-mannered car that is perfectly suited for a long road trip.
So far we have a nice (if unremarkable) looking car that handles well, offers plenty of interior room and trunk space, provides a comfortable interior and does so for thousands of dollars less than a similar import-brand car.
And here's where things start to go awry. That "big problem" we mentioned earlier is an underpowered and unrefined engine. Rather than offer an engine, or choice of engines, that complements the Five Hundred's high points, Ford saddled the Five Hundred with the old 3.0-liter V6 from the Taurus -- it's as if the company ran out of money 7/8th through the project. It wouldn't be so bad if buyers had the option of upgrading to something better, but as it stands the Five Hundred is offered only with the V6, and one making all of 203 horsepower at that.
No matter how you slice it, the Ford Five Hundred is underpowered. A quick survey of current V6-powered midsize sedans reveals that the Five Hundred's engine is a serious Achilles' heel. The Nissan Maxima has 265 hp, the Chrysler 300 Touring 250 hp, the Honda Accord V6 240 hp and Mitsubishi Galant V6 230 hp. Only the back marker Chevy Impala has fewer ponies, but even on a good day that would be a straw man comparison.
The Five Hundred's Duratec V6 performs well at midrange rpm, but off the line the car just has no punch. Around town the car feels like a normal family car, but should you need some zip from a dead stop, you'll be sorely disappointed. The lack of refinement is also noticeable and falls far short of the overhead cam V6s from Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota. While the CVT does a good job of keeping the weak engine in its optimal rev range, it also makes for a rather noisy cabin under moderate to heavy acceleration. In addition to the lack of power, the car rounds out the package with poor fuel economy -- we averaged just 19 miles per gallon. With a better engine, we suspect we'd find little to gripe about in this otherwise better-than-average sedan.
And "better than average" pretty much sums up the car overall. Its clean but ultimately invisible styling combined with a rather deluxe interior make the car appealing. Despite the tame engine, the car handles well and provides a reasonably quiet cabin. The Ford Five Hundred is not perfect, but with a starting price of about $23,000 the car is a fine choice for those in need of a competent, feature-laden family sedan. Just try not to cringe too much when you mash the gas from a dead stop.
System Score 6.0
Components: The stereo in our test car was the upgraded Audiophile system. The head unit is rather bland-looking, but the controls are fairly easy to use. The only problem is the confusing "seek" buttons that seem to indicate that they're supposed to be used for switching CDs in the in-dash changer. Actually, there are other buttons that are farther away and point up and down that must be used to change CDs. Bass, treble and other such functions are accessed via a simple-to-use "menu" button. The steering wheel-mounted audio controls work well with the dash-mounted knobs, although both lack any real pizzazz. The system is capable of playing MP3-format CDs.
Performance: Sound quality is fair. We were really impressed with the stereo when we thought it was the base system. Once we learned it was the upgraded version, we were sorely disappointed. One of the main problems is that bass response is very poor and cranking up the bass through the menu doesn't seem to help. Even if you can get decent bass, the result is a muddy mess that frequently vibrates the rear package self. One of the keys to any good system is separation and this stereo does not have that. As a result of the weak bass, all types of music sound way too bright and tinny. We're not certain but we think the problem lies with the speakers -- also, this system needs a subwoofer in the worst way.
Best Feature: Easy-to-use interface.
Worst Feature: Subpar sound quality.
Conclusion: For an upgraded system, this one provides only so-so sound quality. Better stop by Circuit City on the way home. -- Brian Moody
Road Test Editor Dan Kahn says:
Unlike most of my fellow road test editors, I found the new Five Hundred to be a pleasant, comfortable and nicely put together (if not terribly exciting) family sedan. Sure, it could probably use an extra 100 horsepower to suit my high-performance tastes, and yards of rich Corinthian leather would be more than welcome on the seating surfaces, but let's be honest here. When Ford engineers and designers got together to plan this vehicle, they didn't have road racers and premium luxury car aficionados in mind as their target audience. For all the family car buyers who live between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Five Hundred should be right on target.
Where the Five Hundred truly comes into its own is when you compare its size, interior space, comfort level and road feel to other vehicles in this segment. Our test car didn't come with a price tag, but according to the Edmunds True Market Value tool, a loaded Limited all-wheel-drive model with every option should sell for a hair under $30K. Now consider that you get a commanding view of the road that really does instill driver confidence, more backseat legroom than most SUVs can offer, a host of safety features, extremely nimble and balanced handling and even the security of all-wheel drive.
The 3.0 V6 doesn't propel the Five Hundred at rocket-ship velocities, but it manages to get the job done quietly and smoothly, and my guess is that the average family sedan buyer is more concerned with comfort than all-out speed anyway. The car is based on a Volvo platform, which explains the confident ride and handling, and the trunk is big enough to hold a glut of luggage and a few golf bags. Factor in a pair of divinely comfortable front seats and a surprisingly roomy interior, and most drivers should be quite happy in the newest Blue Oval product.
Manager of Vehicle Testing Kelly Toepke says:
After a spin in the new Ford Five Hundred I find myself whelmed. Not overwhelmed mind you, or underwhelmed, but simply whelmed.
On the surface, the Five Hundred has potential. The exterior styling isn't cutting-edge, but with lines comparable to those of the Volkswagen Passat, it's still easy on the eyes. The interior is exceptionally roomy and comfortable, and the leather seating surfaces help distract from the hard plastic trim. With an abundant amount of passenger space, the main interior issue is refinement. Use the power seat adjustments, and you'll hear what I mean. There is no missing the irritating whirring noise as the seat back and bottom slides into your preferred position.
If the refinement issue was limited to the interior, the Five Hundred may have climbed a notch above adequate. Unfortunately, it's not. The engine lacks the power to move such a big sedan, and it gets pretty noisy while giving it the old college try.
After considering the new Ford's competitors, I began to lose hope. The Five Hundred looks nice, but the Chrysler 300 is striking. The Five Hundred is underpowered, and the 300C is Hemi-powered. As I continue to draw the parallel, I continue to be disappointed.
"Overall, the Ford Five Hundred is an exceptional vehicle. Some improvements that could be made, more horsepower, better sound system...(Bose)...change the grille...get rid of the Ford emblem in the grille and replace it with a hood ornament...and offer Pearl White on the Limited version with these few minor changes, this car would truly be a world-class touring car!" -- Dpizzan, Oct. 25, 2004
"The exterior design looks imposing and has a vast interior. The trunk is endless; perfect for a growing family. Some of the features could be improved. Was time for Ford to come with a different alternative for a large sedan in addition to the old Taurus." -- Mitchel, Oct. 20, 2004
"What other AWD full-size sedan is available for less than $30K and fairly well equipped? An excellent car for the price. CVT is a unique feature that will, for some, take some getting used to. Be sure to check out foot space on both driver and passenger sides before buying. Plenty for me, but others might not think so. And why, Ford, no Sirius Satellite Radio? No stability control? And only the 3.0? Still, a great value and I am well satisfied, so far. Reliability remains to be proven, but may well be better than average. For this car to succeed, it must be reliable!" -- Johnclineii, Oct. 14, 2004
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