Ford's "Year of the Car" might not have set the automotive world on fire.

But close examination of the new cars that came out of the product blitz Chairman Bill Ford promised for 2005 shows that the nation's No. 2 automaker can design and build cars with the best of them.

Last year, we got three impressive new Ford cars: the all-new Mustang, which became a runaway best-seller; the Freestyle, a crossover SUV-sport wagon; and the full-size Five Hundred sedan, one of two vehicles Ford is using to replace the long-running Taurus sedan.

For this report, we tested the 2006 version of the Five Hundred Limited. This is the top-of-the-line model, whose price starts at $26,380 (plus $675 freight) but has a long list of standard amenities -- including leather interior -- that fully justifies the price.

The Five Hundred is larger than the Taurus it replaces, but smaller than the venerable taxi/police favorite Crown Victoria.

It part of Ford's strategy to revitalize its car business after years of concentrating on trucks and sport utility vehicles.

After the Taurus lost favor with consumers in the late '90s, Ford -- whether by accident or ill-conceived design -- ceded its car business to the Japanese, losing out in the lucrative midsize sedan market to the likes of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

With the Five Hundred last year, and the addition of the Fusion this year, Ford has finally said "Enough!" and mounted a serious attack on the Japanese automakers' dominance of the car market.

The Five Hundred is part of a two-vehicle strategy that Ford says "brackets" the discontinued Taurus, giving sedan customers two strong products to choose from.

The Five Hundred is on the upper end of the bracket in price as well as size, with stickers beginning just over $22,000, compared with about $17,000 for the Fusion.

But where the Fusion leaves off, the Five Hundred begins, and it gives Ford not only a competitor to the Camry and Accord, but even to the all-new Toyota Avalon, a larger version of the Camry that some observers have described as "the best Buick money can buy."

This car is as upscale as Buick's new LaCrosse, and a credible alternative to both the LaCrosse and Avalon, among others.

The Five Hundred is based on the architecture of Volvo's flagship S80 sedan. Volvo, the Swedish automaker known for its safe cars, is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Ford Motor Co.

The Five Hundred is for consumers who want something a bit more modern and upscale -- not to mention larger -- than the Taurus, yet not as large as the Crown Vic.

Although the Five Hundred's styling certainly can't be described as radical or even cutting-edge, it does offer a refreshing new look in a Ford sedan.

Ford designers have avoided the stodgy looks of the Crown Vic and Taurus. And the Five Hundred isn't nearly as bland as the generically styled Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

The Five Hundred doesn't have the stodgy handling of a Taurus or Crown Vic, either.

Driving our Limited model last week proved to be something of a treat.

This is a Ford sedan that has decent styling, a comfortable ride, room for five full-size adults, yet surprisingly nimble handling.

The Five Hundred handles more like a sport sedan or coupe, quite surprising for a car whose back seat offers more passenger room than a new Rolls-Royce.

Although our test model represented the best of the Five Hundred line, and came with a sticker that totaled more than $31,000 with options, you really don't have to pay that much to get a nicely equipped Five Hundred.

The least-expensive model is the SE, with a base price of just under $23,000 (including freight) for a front-wheel-drive model, while the all-wheel-drive version's base price is about $24,500. That compares with a base price of just under $20,000 for the Taurus it repolaced, but it's hard to compare these cars -- the Five Hundred is just so far ahead.

The midlevel SEL version begins at just under $25,000.

Even at the base price, the Five Hundred comes with a long list of standard equipment, including "Command Seating" for the driver and front-seat passenger. That means the front seats are about four inches higher than those of a conventional sedan, giving the driver and front passenger a better view of the road.

Ford claims best-in-class rear headroom and legroom, plus the largest trunk of any sedan -- a whopping 21.2 cubic feet of space.

Under the hood of all Five Hundreds is a 3.0-liter V-6 engine, connected to a six-speed automatic transmission on most front-drive models, or a continuously-variable transmission on all-wheel-drive and some front-drive models.

It's rated at 203 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque, which isn't at the top of the class, but quite adequate for moving this car along with the rest of the traffic.

Standard features, even at the base price, include four-wheel antilock disc brakes; 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels with all-season tires; AM/FM stereo with single CD player; power door locks with remote keyless entry and door-mounted keyless entry key pad; power windows with driver's door one-touch up/down; and five-passenger seating with a six-way power driver's seat with manual lumbar adjustment.

The upgrade to the SEL adds dual-zone automatic climate control, six-disc CD changer with MP3 capability, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and a fold-flat front passenger seat with two-way power adjustment.

Extras that come with the Limited, besides leather seats and quite attractive wood interior accents, include 18-inch wheels and Pirelli P6 tires, an audiophile sound system with subwoofer, and heated front sport seats.

Options offered on all models include all-wheel drive ($1,700) and side-curtain air bags with rollover protection ($595-$795, depending on model).

If you choose all-wheel drive, you'll get the continuously variable automatic transmission, rather than the conventional six-speed. No manual gearbox is offered in either model, at least for now.

Inside, there is 107.5 cubic feet of passenger space, which is huge -- especially when you consider that the exterior of the car is almost the same size as most of the popular midsize sedans.

This is a case where Ford designers, using the Volvo platform, were able to optimize interior space without a correspondingly large increase in exterior dimensions. With the rear seat folded (it's a 60-40 split) and the front passenger seat also folded to increase cargo space, an eight-foot ladder can be carried inside the car with the trunk lid closed.

Steering is a precise power rack-and-pinion setup, and the brakes also come with electronic brake-force distribution -- standard on all models.

Options on our Limited model included some things we could have lived without and still had a very nice car. But they did help dress the vehicle up enough to make it feel more like a Lexus than a Ford.

They included an AM/FM/compact-disc/navigation system with moving map in the center dash console ($1,995); a reverse sensing system ($295); adjustable foot pedals with memory ($195); and a DVD rear-seat entertainment center ($995).

We also had the optional safety package ($595), which included driver and front-passenger seat-mounted side air bags, as well as side-curtain air bags for front and back seats.

Total sticker for our car, which came with front drive and the six-speed transmission, was $31,130, including freight.

Because the Five Hundred's chassis and body structure are borrowed from the S80, the car comes with the same crash-safety engineering features found on the Volvo, which have made that car one of the safest on the road.

Fuel economy ratings for front-drive models with the automatic are 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, impressive for a car this large.

All-wheel-drive models with the continuously variable transmission are rated at 19 mpg city/26 highway.

The tank holds 19 gallons of fuel, and unleaded regular is acceptable.

- - -

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236;

- - -

At a Glance - 2006 Ford Five Hundred

The package: Full-size, four-door, five-passenger, front- or all-wheel-drive, V-6 powered sedan.

Highlights: All new just last year, this is a full-size sedan from Ford that is also sold as the Mercury Montego. Derived from the chassis of the luxury Volvo S80, these cars offer a roomy interior, a host of regular and optional features, and a cavernous trunk.

Negatives: No engine upgrade available for sportier performance.

Engine: 3.0-liter V-6

Transmission: Six-speed automatic standard on most front-drive models; continuously variable automatic standard on all-wheel-drive versions and some front-drive models.

Power/torque: 203 hp./207 foot-pounds

Length: 200.9 inches

Curb weight: 3,680 (front drive); 3,930 (all-wheel drive)

Trunk capacity: 21.2 cubic feet

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock and electronic brake-force distribution standard

Fuel capacity/type: 19.0 gallons/unleaded regular

EPA fuel economy: 21 miles per gallon city/29 highway (front drive); 19 city/26 highway (all-wheel drive)

Major competitors: Toyota Camry, Toyota Avalon, Honda Accord, Buick LaCrosse, Pontiac Grand Prix, Chrysler 300, Chevrolet Impala, Hyundai Azera, Kia Amanti

Base price range: $22,300-$26,380 (plus $675 freight)

Price as tested: $31,130 (Limited front-drive model, including freight and options)

On the Road rating: ***** (five stars out of five)

Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail. Actual selling price may vary according to manufacturer and/or dealer rebates, incentives and discounts, if any.