Ford Five Hundred (2005)

"a package that looks like the
last-generation Volkswagen Passat on steroids"
Good: humungous interior, good handling,
reasonable price, well thought out,
practical design
Bad: geezer styling, cheap, plastic dashboard
components, unproven optional CVT transmission

The Five Hundred is a very nice car at a very good price. Unfortunately, geezer styling may prevent it from being the success it deserves to be. The Five Hundred is Ford's new, large sedan. Ford based the Five Hundred on a platform they modified from the Volvo S80 (Ford owns Volvo). The result is a very reasonably priced, very safe car, with tremendous interior room, in a package that looks like the last-generation Volkswagen Passat on steroids.

But underneath the looks is a pretty impressive collection of attributes: huge interior, good handling, all-wheel drive, decent gas mileage, lots of safety equipment, and a nice, high seating position. It's a shame this car hasn't attracted more attention, because it offers a helluva lot for less than 30,000 bucks.

The Five Hundred comes with only one engine choice: a 203 horsepower, 3.0-liter, V6 engine. There are two transmissions: a continuously variable transmission (CVT), and a new, six-speed automatic. The six-speed-automatic transmission gets incrementally better mileage than the CVT: 21city/29 highway, compared to 20 city/27 highway. For an additional $1,850, you can get optional all-wheel drive - but that's only available with the CVT transmission. (Are you still with us?) There are three trim levels: cheap, not so cheap, and not cheap at all. Suggested retail prices range from $22,230 for the base front-wheel drive SE with the continuously variable transmission, to $28,230 for the Limited, with all-wheel drive and CVT, which is what we drove.

The Five Hundred feels very sure of itself on the road. It doesn't have the rock-solid feel of the Volvo S80, but you can feel the influence. The ride is very stable. The car is easy to control. It goes where you point it, and doesn't lose its composure on turns.

The steering is light, but not mushy. The same goes for the ride. The Five Hundred soaks up bumps and ruts well, with its long wheelbase and four-wheel independent suspension.

Also unusual is that you sit up high in the Five Hundred, compared to other sedans. The seat bottom is higher. It makes for a comfortable and commanding driving position. The height of the seats also makes ingress and egress very easy. You don't "fall into" the Five Hundred. You sit down easily, like you would on a chair. And the combination of a comfortable seating position and the huge interior make it a very easy car to take on a long trip.

Some other reviewers (note: not owners) have complained about the lack of power available from the six-cylinder, 203 horsepower engine, given the weight of the Five Hundred, which is just under 4,000 pounds. But we found the engine to be perfectly adequate. It cruised on the highway at 80 without the least complaint. And the power was just fine around town. Only lead-foots would have reason to whine.

The continuously variable transmission is pretty interesting, but it takes some getting used to. The idea is that rather than having four or five or six set ratios, the transmission has an infinite number of ratios, so it's always instantly at its most efficient. The driving sensation is a bit odd, though. When you step on the gas, the revs go way up, and then level off and go down as the car's speed catches up to the RPMs.

The CVT makes the car a bit noisy. So if you're inclined towards purchasing a Five Hundred with the CVT, we'd recommend you take it for a long test drive, first, and see if the noise bothers you. And try to remember - it's not going to get any quieter than the day you drive it off the lot.

In general, because the CVT is new technology for Ford, we have some reservations about recommending it. We're not sure about its long-term reliability. Time will tell. But if it runs into problems at 50,000 miles, do you want be the guinea pig?

So until we know about this particular CVT, we'd recommend you consider the six-speed automatic which, at least, is known technology and operates more quietly.

The engine itself runs very smoothly. Our actual gas mileage wasn't bad, ranging from 20 in mixed highway and city driving to 26 MPG cruising on the highway. When we slowed down to the speed limit, the gas mileage climbed to around 28 MPG, which is pretty good for a car of this size.

The interior is absolutely humongous - which is particularly impressive given that the exterior is not. Sit in the back, and you'll be reminded of being in the back of a Checker cab (minus the vinyl seats, smell of barf, and Plexiglas shield between you and the driver). It's that big. It's as if the backseat passengers were upgraded to Business Class. That said, the interior is not luxurious. It's plain. It gets the job done. But it's clean, and well laid out. The exceptions are the seats, which are quite luxurious. If you want to live it up, you can get leather seats and have a mobile living room.

The plastic on the dashboard and on the directional and wiper stalks is a little cheap feeling, which is surprising, because the rest of the interior is pretty decent. We wish Ford had followed the example of the Chrysler 300C, which had an interior that just reeked of quality, a steering wheel that felt not only comfortable but rich, and more substantial stalks. These are things people touch and notice first. And you might as well make a good impression there.

Overall, the seating position is nice and high. You feel more like you're sitting in a minivan than in a sedan. The car itself is fairly high, so those who aren't as mobile as they once were will have an easier time getting in and out of the Five Hundred. This is one of those "Doh!" moments that the auto industry has every few decades. They spend 50 years making cars that you either have to fall down into, or climb up into. And finally someone says, "Hey, guys, why don't we make a car with seats that are about the height of people's butts?" Brilliant!

The Five Hundred has a huge trunk - more than enough room for tons of groceries and several bodies. Two couples could go on vacation in this car, and not hurt for room. The backseat also folds, in case you need to move, say, a sea kayak.

On the safety front... you want airbags? We got airbags. The Five Hundred comes standard with front and side airbags up front. And you can order an optional "safety canopy," that includes a rollover sensor and head curtain airbags front and rear. ABS is standard on all four disc brakes. While all-wheel drive has to be considered a safety feature, too, the Five Hundred lacks vehicle stability control, which we highly recommend.

The ergonomics are very good in the Five Hundred. Everything is essentially where you'd expect it to be. The radio is simple to use, though there's no tuning knob. Instead, Ford uses an "up/down" switch, which we found to be annoying. Repeatedly pushing a button is not as comfortable as turning a knob. The heating and ventilation controls, including dual-zone air conditioning, are very simple. The Five Hundred has good cup holders and excellent storage bins. The steering wheel includes controls for cruise control and radio volume, which was a very nice touch.

The Five Hundred looks as if Ford's designers started with a VW Passat, then sent it to Balco for steroids and made it a bit more plain looking. It's a little boring looking, like the Passat. At its best, it's plain in a tasteful, slightly Euro way. At its worst, it looks like a geezer-mobile without any thought to styling.

It's fairly roomy under the hood of the Five Hundred, so servicing should be routine. We expect servicing costs to be about average.

The engine in the Five Hundred is a three-liter, overhead cam Duratech design that's been around for a while. We expect it to be reasonably reliable.

We do have some reservations about the continuously variable transmission, which we noted earlier. If you're going to try the CVT, be aware that it's a first for Ford, so you're an early adopter - and that might come with some unanticipated costs or, at least, inconveniences. In fairness, the six-speed-automatic transmission is new, too. It was developed jointly by Ford and GM. But at least it's well-known technology.

If you buy the all-wheel drive, consider purchasing an extended warranty. The electronic all-wheel-drive system comes from Volvo, and we're not aware of any problems with it. But it does add complexity and expense. And if something goes wrong, you'll be looking at a very large repair bill.

The Ford Five Hundred has no real clear competitors right now. If you're looking for a large, safe, comfortable sedan, with available all-wheel drive, for less than 30 grand, you'd be hard pressed to come up with one. The Subaru Legacy is much smaller. The Audi A4 is much smaller and more expensive. The Toyota Avalon doesn't offer all-wheel drive. The Chrysler 300 doesn't have nearly the interior room. To get everything you get in the Five Hundred, you'd be looking at a Volvo S80, and Audi A6, both of which run $40,000 and up. So if these are the features you want, the Five Hundred is a hell of a deal.

It's also sold in wagon form as the Ford Freestyle, which is actually a better looking vehicle, though a little less quiet.

We hope Ford sells a bunch of these, because it's a well-thought-out, practical car. If they don't sell, we predict it'll be due to the dull styling. That's something that can be addressed by Ford in the next redesign. And we hope they address it. The Five Hundred doesn't deserve to be ignored.

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