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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Kelsey Mays
November 27, 2006
Now in its third year, Ford's Five Hundred offers few changes to address the complaints of its harshest critics, who say it's underpowered and has the visual appeal of a Styrofoam cup. After a week behind the wheel, I think it's really a matter of taste. If you're looking for a sporty, hip full-size car, you should avoid the Five Hundred. If you're in the market for a comfortable, spacious sedan that takes little effort to drive, this might be right up your alley. Form Follows Function From fastback rooflines to tall trunks and tiny windows, many cars go to great lengths to look sporty. Unfortunately, a lot of these designs lead to very little headroom, obscured blind spots and cramped backseats.
Not so with the Five Hundred. It looks deliberately stodgy, with long front and rear overhangs, a rigid roofline and thin window pillars. Few onlookers will fancy its lines, but fewer still will debate its functionality. The tall roof leaves more than enough headroom for backseat passengers, and the long rear deck holds a voluminous trunk. The large windows ensure that everyone has a great view.
Ford says the front seats are positioned 4 inches higher than those in most cars. I never had to step down — or climb up — to get in, and the high perch offers a commanding view of the road. The enormous side mirrors and expansive rear-quarter glass left me virtually no blind spot. I was not so thrilled with the rearview mirror: It's wedged right against the ceiling, cutting its reflection area and making it difficult to adjust.
Compared with what I have experienced in other large cars, the Five Hundred's front seats seem a bit narrow, especially at the shoulders. A power driver's seat is standard, and the one in my test car offered plenty of range in all directions. The tilt steering wheel doesn't telescope, but power-adjustable pedals are optional so shorter drivers can position themselves a safe distance from the wheel.
Rear passengers will appreciate the abundant legroom, and the trunk offers 21.2 cubic feet of cargo volume, which is 2.4 cubic feet more than you get in a Cadillac DTS. A 60/40-split, folding backseat is standard, and the front passenger seat folds flat to accommodate even longer items.
The cabin is marred by shortcuts here and there, but its overall quality befits a car in this price range. A covered storage tray atop the dashboard can accommodate CDs or cell phones, and the dual-zone automatic climate control in my test car had large, prominent temperature buttons. Aside from the painted plastic on the gearshift, the dashboard surfaces had a respectable look and feel.
The gauges have a clean finish, but their green and white backlighting can be difficult to see when they're illuminated. Worse yet, the analog clock in my test car was so poorly lit that I quit using it at night. The overhead grab handles and vanity mirrors snapped cheaply shut, too. None of these flaws are deal-breakers, but each is a clear reminder the Five Hundred is a $25,000 mass-market sedan. How Much Power Do You Need? The Five Hundred uses a 3.0-liter V-6 that makes 203 horsepower and 207 pounds-feet of torque. Ford has used this engine in one form or another for more than a decade. Other automakers have since shoehorned larger, more advanced engines into their full-size cars, and in comparison the Five Hundred underwhelms. Anyone used to driving the large cars of yesterday — or the four-cylinder cars of today — should find adequate performance in most situations, though.
All-wheel drive is optional, though its extra weight will likely make the car a bit pokier.
A six-speed automatic transmission is standard in front-wheel-drive versions. For better passing power, it's willing to kick down two or three gears without much delay, though the resultant revs can make the engine sound quite thrashy. On longer inclines, the transmission prefers to hold the gear it started in — even though a lower one might provide brisker acceleration — so getting up to speed can take some patience. The payoff comes in minimal gear hunting, which helps the Five Hundred maintain a smooth, hiccup-free ride.
With the six-speed automatic, the Five Hundred is rated at 29 mpg on the highway — not too shabby for a full-size car. All-wheel drive substitutes the six-speed gearbox for a continuously variable automatic transmission. With that setup, highway gas mileage drops to 26 mpg.
Four-wheel-discantilock brakes are standard. I found the pedal rather mushy, but there was acceptable stopping power once I pushed hard enough. What Sort of Driving Do You Do? Take it easy through the turns, and the Five Hundred will serve just fine. The standard four-wheel-independent suspension absorbs bumps with minimal cabin disturbance, and large ruts don't leave lingering reverberations. Maneuvers that require more agility — like a right turn into traffic or a quick merge into the passing lane — can catch the Five Hundred off-guard, resulting in plenty of body roll and a squeal or two from the front tires.
The steering has a split personality. It uses a conventional hydraulic setup and feels much more natural than some of the over-boosted, artificial systems competitors use. It's very sloppy at low speeds, imparting the directional control of a ship's rudder, not a car's steering wheel. At 40 feet, the Five Hundred's turning circle is among the worst in its segment.
At cruising speeds, things change noticeably. The steering firms up, transmitting much more direct commands to the front wheels. It was actually a willing companion on twisty roads, though the car's wobbly suspension had me abandon such antics in short order. Safety All Five Hundreds manufactured after September 2006 come with six standard airbags, including dual front airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. The side curtain airbags include Ford's Safety Canopy system, which deploys them just before a rollover and can maintain their inflation for several seconds. Such systems are prevalent in SUVs, whose higher center of gravity makes them more prone to rollovers, but they're a welcome feature in this class.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — Cars.com's preferred source — rated the Five Hundred Good (the best possible result) in front and side-impact crash tests. It's a dramatic improvement over the previous Five Hundred, which came standard with just the front airbags and got a Poor rating in side-impact tests.
Head restraints come for the front and rear outboard seats, though the rear restraints are tilted back — better for comfort, worse for whiplash protection. The center rear seat has no head restraint.
Child safety accomodations include two Latch child-seat anchors for each outboard rear seat. They're installed several inches inward, which conventional wisdom says provides better protection from side impacts. The innermost hooks are spaced such that if you only have one youngster, one child seat can be anchored in the center — the safest spot for kids, and a provision most cars don't offer. Top-tether anchors for all three positions sit atop the backseat shelf.
In addition to the all-disc ABS brakes, traction control is optional in front-wheel-drive models and standard in the all-wheel-drive Five Hundred. An electronic stability system is not available, but Ford says one will be offered for 2008. Trim Levels and Options Ford simplified the Five Hundred lineup for 2007, eliminating the base SE trim level. Starting around $23,000, the well-equipped Five Hundred SEL includes power front seats with manual seatback adjusters, 17-inch alloy wheels, a CD stereo with steering wheel audio controls, and power windows, locks and mirrors. The $26,555 Limited adds power seatbacks, 18-inch wheels, a six-CD changer, automatic climate control and heated leather seats, among other things. Additional options include a navigation system, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and a moonroof. I drove a front-wheel-drive Five Hundred Limited.
The Mercury Montego is closely related, though it offers a few upscale options that are unavailable in the Five Hundred. Other Cars to Consider If you're shopping for a Five Hundred, be sure to check out the Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Avalon. Your shortlist might also include the Chrysler 300, Buick Lucerne and Hyundai Azera. Here's how some of them measure up:
Reliability & Resale Value Consumer Reports gives the Five Hundred average reliability scores. The 2007 model has Ford's new five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty.
A 2-year-old Five Hundred SE in good condition with average mileage loses about 45 percent of its value at trade-in, according to Kelley Blue Book. That's significantly worse than the Toyota Avalon, which drops about 34 percent under the same conditions. But it beats Ford's other full-size sedan, the Crown Victoria, which loses about 58 percent. Five Hundred in the Market There is no doubt the Five Hundred's lackluster acceleration and uninspired styling lost Ford a boatload of potential customers. Had it come through on those counts, it would probably have much broader appeal.
That's not to say the car deserves to be ignored by all, though. It still offers plenty of standard features for the money, interior functionality at its best and an excellent safety record. For buyers disinclined to splurge on the latest and greatest, this is exactly what counts.