The Five Hundred's clean and attractive interior is well-executed overall, and a notably high seating position assists in presenting the driver with very good visibility. The high seats also help ease ingress and egress, even for people with chronic back pain. However, we found the front seats (the only heated pair in our test) to be almost too high, creating a feeling of exposure unusual in a four-door sedan. The Ford features a test-leading 21 cubic feet of trunk space, so climbing in and hiding when feelings of nakedness overwhelm is an option. (The 300 and Avalon have a comparatively meek 15.6 and 14.4 cubic feet, respectively.) A lack of soft-touch materials and an overabundance of fake wood trim didn't score any points with us, though.
The Avalon feels like it's the best put together of the three, with well-wrought action attached to all of its pleasant-to-touch controls, particularly the radio dials. We felt that the Toyota's ergonomics were easily the best. The interior was, however, dominated by an overabundance of silver control covers (radio, tape player, cup holders) and trim, and some of our testers accordingly found the Ford more attractive. While the Toyota's seats looked the nicest because of their attractive materials, on long trips they began to feel a bit too mushy and unsupportive, so the seats of the Five Hundred, though not perfect, were by default our favorite. The Avalon (built in Kentucky, incidentally) also kept out road and powertrain noise much better than the Detroit candidates. Moreover, the recline-adjustable rear seats of the Avalon made it our favorite space in which to be chauffeured.
Plausible PowertrainsThe sluggish Five Hundred was powered by the most disappointing engine in our test. Full-throttle starts are rewarded with lots of noise but little thrust from the overtaxed 203-hp, 3.0-liter V-6. The six-speed automatic transmission aids fuel economy, but it loudly and unnecessarily downshifts on the highway even under subtle throttle inputs. We would have preferred more gear-selection options, too; the shift map offered only "D" (drive) and "L" (low), and Low was too short for utilizing engine-braking techniques.
The Touring models of the 300 and the Avalon come with identically sized, 3.5-liter V-6s that make the Ford's output seem puny. The Chrysler produces 250 hp, while the Toyota's more refined engine wrings out 280 hp. The Toyota sported the only manu-matic on our test, which came in handy for holding engine revs through long, sweeping curves and engine braking. The five-speed transmission did its job commendably and without fuss, whether passing on country roads or cruising on the highway.
The Chrysler's V-6 has acceptable power, but it pales in comparison to the available 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that lurks between the fenders the 300C. Also, the four-speed transmission (which offers the fewest cogs in this test) clunks noticeably when you shift from Park to Reverse to Drive.
EPA fuel economy ratings are comparable, but mirror our rankings of the cars' interiors: Toyota leads with 22 city/31 highway miles per gallon; Ford is next best at 21/29; while the Chrysler slurps the most fuel, though yields a still-respectable 19/27 mpg.
Fun FactorsThe nimble Chrysler 300's rear-wheel-drive layout easily made it our favorite to drive aggressively through twists and turns. In fact, its lighter front end--compared with the 300C, which weighs 300 pounds more than the Touring model--helps somewhat to make up for its power handicap. Against the two big front-wheel-drive competitors in this test, the 300's superior traction and simpler steering mechanicals allowed it to be more composed and capable, especially near the limit.
The same suspension setup that made the 300 fun to drive, however, was a hindrance in processing road-surface imperfections, as it was the most likely to be tossed around by bumps instead of absorbing them. The trade-off is that the Toyota and (especially) the Ford tend to track lazily and float more on the highway.
For a large front-wheel-driver, the Five Hundred, was surprisingly fun to drive hard through the corners, as its steering, throttle, and brakes felt well connected and progressive. The underpowered V-6 and significant body roll hindered the driving dynamics somewhat, as did its overall feeling of heft.