All Five Hundreds use a 3.0-liter/203-horse V-6; no optional engine is offered. A large car on a laudable platform, the Five Hundred was intended to launch with a stronger engine, but the powerplant development fell behind the car program, resulting in a significant compromise for its debut. Although trailing the competition by up to 62 horsepower (Nissan Maxima), the Five Hundred does boast two technically advanced transmissions: a six-speed automatic and a continuously variable automatic, or CVT. Unlike other transmissions, which have a fixed number of ratios (usually four, five, or six), a CVT has an infinite number of ratios, aiding performance and boosting fuel economy. The Five Hundred also has a key advantage in being offered in both front- and all-wheel drive configurations. Front-wheel-drive SEL and Limited models get the six-speed, while the base, FWD SE gets the CVT. The CVT comes standard with AWD.
Behind the Wheel
If you're considering one of the Five Hundred models with the CVT, be sure to take a test drive. Although it doesn't require anything special from the driver, the sensation of driving with the CVT is quite different from that of a car with a conventional automatic transmission. During acceleration, instead of hearing the engine revs climb, then drop with a shift, then climb again, a CVT-equipped engine's revs constantly climb to match the car's speed. Unfortunately, the Five Hundred's engine is not terribly refined and exacerbates the drivetrain feedback. The engine's greater problem--and the car's Achilles heel--is its lack of power. Acceleration is sluggish. The ride, though, is comfortable, and the car enjoys direct steering and competent handling, though it won't be mistaken for a sports sedan--or even a Chrysler 300--when it comes to spirited driving. When the livelier 3.5-liter V-6 comes on line in 2006, we expect the Five Hundred to become significantly more entertaining and desirable.
For non-enthusiast, mainstream buyers, the Five Hundred has a lot to offer. The available all-wheel drive is a boon to those who drive in inclement weather. The elevated seating position should appeal to anyone looking for better visibility, and the easy access should appeal to the elderly and people who load kids into car seats. The huge rear seat would make the Five Hundred a good choice for families with long-legged teenagers (who also might enjoy the available DVD player) and business types who often ferry colleagues. The oversized trunk makes this sedan a compelling alternative to a wagon or a crossover sport/utility vehicle. Anyone with a trailer to tow would likely exceed the 1,000-pound weight limit, but buyers with that need should probably look in other vehicle segments, anyway. In its first year, the Five Hundred had a strong showing in the IntelliChoice Ownership Cost analysis, with most models fairing Better than Average, a notable edge over the Crown Victoria and Taurus.
The Five Hundred is a large, versatile, well-executed sedan that craves a right-sized engine to complete its compelling package.