Introduced as an all-new nameplate for 2005, the Ford Five Hundred is the company's interpretation of the modern American sedan. Big and roomy inside, the Five Hundred features a tall roof that offers lots of headroom. The driver sits relatively high, gaining a commanding view of the road. The back seats are comfortable and quite roomy. And they fold down to increase cargo capacity.
Volvo assisted with engineering a body structure that benefits from the latest in safety technology. Ford acquired the Swedish automaker famous for its passenger-protecting innovations in 1999 and, when it came time to develop the Five Hundred, employed Volvo's best structural and safety engineers to work on the project.
The Ford Five Hundred is available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the latter giving it more stable handling and better traction, particularly in inclement weather.
The V6 engine that comes on all models delivers responsive performance and good fuel economy. On front-wheel-drive models, the V6 is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, which offers more responsive performance and better efficiency than a traditional four-speed automatic. All-wheel-drive models come with a continuously variable transmission, a design noted for its responsiveness and efficiency.
Ford Five Hundred SE ($22,230); SE AWD ($24,080); SEL ($24,230); SEL AWD ($26,080); Limited ($26,380); Limited AWD ($28,230)
The Ford 500 name goes way back. Ford first used it in numerical form for the 1957 Fairlane 500, the highest trim version of the car that helped Ford overtake Chevrolet in the sales race. When Ford launched a new flagship, the Galaxie, in 1959, it again used the 500 badge to indicate the most upscale version. When Ford brought back the Five Hundred (spelled out) as an all-new product for 2005, it was as a separate model and as the new flagship of its fleet of cars.
The Five Hundred is much bigger than the old Taurus. The Five Hundred is 3 inches longer, 1.5 inches wider, and 4 inches taller than the Taurus. It also rides on a wheelbase that is 4.5 inches longer, which not only gives the car its solid, luxury-car stance but enhances smooth ride quality.
The Five Hundred's basic structure benefits from Volvo's extensive safety research. The chief designer said it was a challenge to sculpt a Ford-styled body around a Volvo chassis, and added that designers used what he calls plainer surfaces with taut lines to give the car a modern look without losing its passenger-car proportions. The Five Hundred's rounded forms offer a more conservative alternative to the more upright, angular Chrysler 300.
The Five Hundred's face has large, jewel-styled and multi-bulb triangular headlight elements on either side of a wide, trapezoidal grille. Chrome accents the front bumper, rear bumper, doors and window frames. Large rear side windows give the Five Hundred more of a luxury car profile.
The tall trunk lid has a spoiler-like lip along its top trailing edge. The rear of the car features large, multi-element and triangular shaped tail lamps and dual, down turned exhaust tips.
The SE and SEL ride on seven-spoke aluminum wheels and Continental tires while the Limited gets distinctive eight-spoke 18-inch wheels and Pirelli tires.
The Ford Five Hundred boasts a roomy cabin. In fact, it's roomier than the big Crown Victoria (108.3 cubic feet of passenger space vs. 106.4 for the Crown Vic), which is impressive given the Five Hundred is a foot shorter in overall length.
Rear-seat room is particularly impressive: In fact, there's more rear legroom (41.9 inches) than front legroom (41.2 inches). That rear-seat legroom is enhanced because the front seats are mounted above the rear floor, leaving room for your feet underneath.
We spent time in the driver's and front passenger's seats as well as the back seats and found all of them comfortable and supportive even after several hours in the car. All seats feature what Ford calls a command view of the road, with seat-bottom cushions that are some four inches higher than those of a typical mid-sized sedan. The front seats are mounted on a Volvo-devised cross-body beam that runs from the bottom of the B-pillar (the post between the front and rear doors) that adds strength to the car's shell and helps provide protection in the event of a side impact.
Each of the four doors has a beverage holder, and additional cup holders are located in the center console between the front seats with two more in the center console that folds down from the back of the back middle seat. The dashboard has a covered storage compartment in its top center section. The dashboard comes in silver or wood-grain trim with metal used for the door releases and around the base and top of the gear shift lever.
We found the switchgear well designed and easy to use. Audio controls are mounted at the top of the center stack with climate controls beneath.
The steeply raked windshield can reflect glare off the top of the dashboard, however, something we noticed with the tan-colored Pebble interior. (Shale and Black interiors are also available.) Also, a driver wearing sunglasses can have trouble reading the darkly colored gauges in the SE and SEL models. The Limited light-faced gauges are easier to read.
The Five Hundred has a big trunk (21.2 cubic feet) that can hold eight sets of golf clubs. The rear seatbacks fold forward to provide enlarged luggage space, and the front passenger's seat (on SEL and Limited versions) folds down to provide space for a 10-foot long ladder or other object to fit inside the Five Hundred with the trunk lid closed, a neat trick for a sedan.
The Ford Five Hundred accelerates with authority. Its 3.0-liter V6 engine delivers more than sufficient power for this big sedan, even when four adults are aboard. You can squeal the tires and race away from a stoplight. Or you can push down your right foot and the six-speed transmission on front-drive models quickly downshifts as the engine responds with the power you need for passing, or for accelerating onto a freeway.
The Five Hundred is very quiet when cruising along, and we never had to raise our voices to carry on a conversation with those sitting beside, behind or in front of us.
The Five Hundred's long wheelbase, independent front and rear suspension and stiff chassis work well together. Steering is nicely weighted and provides good feedback.
The disc brakes are impressively effective. The Five Hundred comes standard with anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), which optimizes front/rear brake bias to shorten stopping distances. Also helping to reduce stopping distances is the size of the brakes: 12.5-inch discs with double-piston calipers on the front wheels and 13.0-inch discs in the rear.
While many automakers still use four-speed automatic transmissions, front-wheel-drive versions of the Five Hundred benefit from a six-speed automatic, which provides smoother performance and better fuel efficiency. The Five Hundred, equipped with front-wheel drive and six-speed automatic, is rated 21/29 miles per gallon City/Highway by the EPA.
While we spent most our time in the front-wheel-drive version, we did take time to try an all-wheel-drive Five Hundred on a dirt hill in a rock quarry. While another all-wheel-drive vehicle spun its wheels and struggled mightily to climb the slippery hill, the all-wheel-drive Five Hundred sedan went right up and over. You may not need to tear through rock quarries, you may need to drive through snow, and the Five Hundred should handle winter travel well. All-wheel drive also helps in the rain, where it stabilizes the handling of the car.
AWD models come with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, that provides seamless operation and 19/26 mpg. Ford used the efficient CVT to help overcome the usual mileage penalty paid by heavier, more complex all-wheel-drive systems.
The Ford Five Hundred delivers full-size interior space in a mid-size car. Back seat passengers won't be cramped and there's plenty of room for luggage. Its V6 engine delivers sufficient power and its transmissions help the engine perform well while achieving fuel-efficiency.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Larry Edsall is based in Arizona.