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.