EXPERT REVIEW

AZCentral.com's view

The styling will not impress anyone. Nor will the performance, which is fairly routine.

The new Ford Five Hundred looks so ordinary that it could easily be overlooked, with prospective drivers’ heads turned toward more exciting shapes, such as the Chrysler 300.

And while other manufacturers are trotting out high-performance engines for even the most prosaic cars, Ford saw fit to power the Five Hundred with a 3-liter V-6 with just 203 horsepower.

But look a little closer, and you’ll find something of value: a serious upscale automobile with much of the appeal of high-priced European sedans. With its roomy and accommodating interior, tall seating position and voluminous trunk, Five Hundred taps into the formula that has made sport utility vehicles and crossover variations so popular.

This is a car for adults, unlikely to be seen on a hip-hop MTV video but providing plenty of substance for grown-up drivers, either those with families to haul or older people accustomed to big cars.

The sedan looks more like as extension of the Crown Victoria, the rear-drive bastion of highway conservatism and government fleets, than anything brand new. And the name Five Hundred, which harks to top-drawer Fairlanes and Galaxies of the distant past, promised some excitement. So the reception for this 2005 model has been lukewarm.

My take on Five Hundred is that Ford blew the opportunity to build something that would make people take notice, much as Chrysler did with the 300 sedan. Ford seems to have a couple of hits on its hands with the redesigned Mustang and new Freestyle crossover SUV, both of which have drawn welcomed attention to the blue oval.

Ford should have learned the lesson from its own Taurus, which created such a stir with then-advanced styling when it appeared in the mid-1980s.

So why go generic with Five Hundred?

What it is Notching into Ford’s lineup above the long-lived Taurus, Five Hundred is a conservative car with good credentials but not much pizazz.

This car is tall, the roofline rising to more than 5 feet, akin to some SUVs. Ford’s aim is to attract buyers who appreciate the attributes of the trucklike sport utilities but prefer to drive a sedan.

Mercury has its own version, the Montego.

The test car was the top-end Limited version with all the trimmings, including full-time all-wheel drive and a continuously variable automatic transmission.

Performance A small V-6 is the only engine available for the Five Hundred, a 3-liter mill whose 203 horsepower works hard to motivate the 3,815 pound sedan. The car’s not sluggish, exactly, but would certainly benefit from a little more juice.

Fuel mileage is decent for a big car, attributable to the efficient double-overhead-cam engine and the continuously variable transmission, known in the jargon as a CVT. Instead of using multiple gears, as do conventional transmissions, the CVT uses a drive chain and conical gears to vary the ratio according to speed and throttle input, all without gear changes.

The setup does feel weird, the engine setting up a continuous drone as the car picks up speed. For performance buffs, this could get annoying. For most people, the improvement in fuel mileage and overall performance is appreciated.

The CVT is standard with all-wheel-drive models, the front-drive versions getting an equally sophisticated six-speed automatic or CVT.

Drivability The Five Hundred is based on the platform created by Volvo for its large sedans and SUVs (Ford owns Volvo), and it shows. Handling and driving finesse are right up there with the luxury Swede.

All-wheel drive enhances sure-footedness on every surface, wet, dry or slippery. The Five Hundred felt stable and secure on Phoenix’s recent rain-soaked streets.

Styling Well, the profile is clean with good proportions, but the overall effect is ho-hum. The 18-inch chrome wheels that come with the Limited help spice things up a bit.

You realize how tall this car is when it’s parked with other sedans, where it looks like a baby whale.

Interior Roomy and accommodating, with thick, supportive seats and plenty of legroom and headroom throughout. This is the sedan for those who yearn for a commodious interior but don’t want a car that’s too big. Five Hundred is 3 inches longer than Taurus but feels much bigger.

The interior styling, like the exterior, is conservative and traditional, with the fully equipped Limited boasting leather seats and steering wheel and wood-grain inserts.

The seating is high, a little too high for my taste, but having the desired effect of SUV-like outward vision and security.

The trunk is huge, with back seats and passenger seat that fold flat to increase load space.

The base SE model comes with a good load of power and convenience features, and the SEL model adds to the mix. Standard on the Limited are such goodies as a six-CD Audiophile audio system with six speakers and subwoofer and a classy analog clock.

Pricing Base price for the well-equipped SE is $22,795, with the Limited test car starting out at $27,845.

Options on the tester included power moonroof, $895; side airbags and air curtains, $595; reverse radar warning system, $250; adjustable pedals, $175; and shipping, $650.

The total came to $30,525, certainly a chunk unless you figure in the high level of sophistication and equipment.

Bottom line Ford held back on the styling, and there’s scant excitement about this new sedan, especially from younger drivers. But once past the generic exterior, Five Hundred comes across as a high-quality car and a good value.

Tech specs: Ford Five Hundred Ltd. Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, all-wheel drive.

Base price: $27,845.

Price as tested: $30,525.

Engine: 3-liter V-6, 203 horsepower at 5,750 rpm, 207 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm.

Transmission: Continuously variable

Wheelbase: 112.9 inches

Curb weight: 3,815 pounds

EPA mileage: 19 city, 26 highway

Highs: Roomy interior Good drivability Desirable features

Lows: Generic styling Conservative interior Engine drone

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