Ever since the Detroit auto show in January, Ford has been grabbing our elbow and telling us that 2005 will be the Year of the Car. The first step into this brave new world is a revitalized interpretation of the Great American Car.
This is important news, the kind of message a lot of people want to hear. It is supposed to be a turning point in automotive history, as a company that has reaped huge profits from America's enthusiasm for pickups and sport-utilities suddenly embraces the car again. The antitruck fanatics are immensely pleased, imagining big sedans thundering across the American landscape. Big cars, big engines, and a big country. Let us all now sing "America the Beautiful."
We hate to turn a water cannon on anyone's torchlight parade, but the reasons for Ford's new product initiative are actually pretty prosaic. This is a company newly returned to profitability in the wake of the recession that followed the events of September 11, 2001, but the revival has been accomplished largely through the parsimonious accounting tactics that are ingrained so deeply in Ford's corporate culture. These include a fifteen percent reduction in the U.S. workforce, the closure of five manufacturing plants, and the retreat from unprofitable market segments (cars) while emphasizing the profitable ones (trucks). Now that the financial bleeding is done, Ford is ready to start over. And it's starting over with three vehicles: the Ford Five Hundred, the Mercury Montego, and the Ford Freestyle.
We turned up at Ford's proving ground in Romeo, Michigan, to drive the Five Hundred and learned everything we needed to know in the first five minutes. Phil Martens, Ford's group vice president for product creation in North America, told us that the Five Hun-dred is all about smoothness, ride comfort, and fuel economy. He said, "The Five Hundred is an affordable dream for Middle Americans." In other words, this new interpretation of the Great American Car is not exactly the stuff of which dreams are made. For car guys, anyway.
The Five Hundred is a big, full-size car, not some kind of Honda Accord. Available as either a front- or all-wheel-drive sedan, it has a 112.9-inch wheelbase, stands a full 60.1 inches tall, and tapes out to nearly seventeen feet from end to end. The passenger cabin space measures 107.1 cubic feet, or about the size of a racquetball court. The trunk is 21.2 cubic feet, large enough for whatever trouble Tony Soprano can get himself into, and the rear seat's 60/40 folding seatback increases cargo capacity even further.
When you're rolling down the road, the view over the Five Hundred's low cowl is commanding. Like all the latest maxi-space sedans, the car has an upright and chairlike driving position, about 3.5 inches higher than that of a Ford Taurus. The combination of this packaging with the Five Hundred's very high roof line delivers a huge amount of space for both front and rear passengers, as much as the latest generation of long-wheelbase executive cars from the German manufacturers. The basic architecture of this car comes from Volvo (surely one of Ford's smartest corporate acquisitions), and this package is predictably Volvo-like in structural integrity and safety features, much like a Volvo S80.
Although this is a large car, it doesn't have a large amount of horsepower to pull it irresistibly forward, as Ford's 3.0-liter V-6 brings a meager 203 horsepower to the game. Fortunately, the Five Hundred has a couple of things to help it in its battle with physics. First, this sedan is relatively lightweight, just 3643 pounds in its front-wheel-drive iteration and some 3815 pounds when equipped with Volvo's Haldex-built all-wheel-drive system. Second, there's some trickery in the transmission department, as either a CVT or a six-speed automatic is available, and wide-ratio torque multiplication helps accomplish what power alone cannot.
We spent most of our time in the Five Hundred on the roads of the Romeo proving grounds, so we can't be conclusive about how it drives in the real world, even though we slipped away for an hour on local highways. It was a little bit like driving in a test tube, but both a Chrysler 300 and a Toyota Avalon were there to help us get our bearings.
On the proving ground, the Five Hundred didn't exactly feel brilliant under acceleration, as the flatulent exhaust note let us know the engine was working hard. While cruising, the passenger cabin registered a bit of wind noise and some tire rumble. Out on the road, it seemed quieter and more composed, and the excellent ZF-built CVT helped deliver real passing power. We were told the Five Hundred also delivers outstanding fuel economy, approximately 29 mpg in EPA highway mode from the CVT-equipped 2wd car.
Oddly enough, the Five Hundred does its best work when it's weaving back and forth; it steered sharply and predictably, and the chassis shrugged off bumps. We shouldn't be surprised, as Ford has a tradition of expertise in high-speed handling that dates to its first involvement with the Bondurant driving school more than twenty years ago, and the recent tenure of Richard Parry-Jones as Ford's lead engineer helped reestablish high standards in vehicle dynamics. So, while the Five Hundred's controls felt heavy and inert, almost like those of the Ford Explorer, there was a surprisingly lively car underneath us.
Just how much car became apparent in a comparison with the 300 and the Avalon. The Five Hundred gets to 60 mph in less than eight seconds, and Ford's testing indicates the car is a half-second quicker than the heavyweight Chrysler 300 Touring with its 3.5-liter V-6 and a second quicker than the Toyota Avalon XLS with its 3.0-liter V-6. Predictably, the Avalon felt soggy whenever real driving was involved, and it practically cringed whenever it saw a corner. We were surprised to find that even the rear-wheel-drive Chrysler seemed a little overmatched by the Five Hundred, as if the Ford's limits actually might be higher.
Of course, none of this really matters. As soon as you see the Five Hundred, you can tell that it's an old man's car, perfectly practical yet fundamentally uninspiring. It's a huge automobile, like one of those wacky, oversized cars of the 1940s that our own Bruce McCall draws so frequently, a vision of an impossibly bland America. Unfortunately, the Five Hundred doesn't have the spark of visual imagination that you see in McCall's illustrations, and it looks as if someone left a Volkswagen Passat in the summer sun until every bit of life had been bleached out of it. The interior is cheerless, like a bad day in Dearborn, even if the materials and quality are a step above those of its domestic competition.
We don't want to pin the Five Hundred's whole character to its styling, but its visual failings do speak to Ford's unambitious plan for this car. While Chrysler, with the 300, has tried to revive enthusiasm for the traditional American sedan by promising a personalized driving experience with adventurous style, the Five Hundred is content to be reliable transportation, a kind of pumped-up Ford Taurus. The Mercury Montego comes only as a fully equipped car with all-wheel drive, yet it's not very different from the Ford. The Five Hundred combines the affordability and fuel efficiency of a car with the practicality and spaciousness of a sport-utility. This is a fine idea, but it's a throwback to sedans of the past, not a step toward sedans of the future.
The Five Hundred is not just a traditional sedan; it's also a traditional Ford. It's thoroughly planned, well engineered, and carefully produced, the product of a company that always has had a special feel for manufacturing. But it's a product, not a car. And as a product, it will live and die on its durability, quality, and reliability, so we'll know a lot more about its goodness a year after it goes on sale than we do now.
For car guys, the Ford Five Hundred might be the kind of car you can recommend, an automobile that you can picture someone else driving. But if you're looking for a Ford sedan that you'd want to drive yourself, then you'll be looking forward to the 2005 Detroit auto show. Ford will introduce the Fusion, a sedan based on the Mazda 6, and it promises to be a more interesting celebration of the Year of the Car.