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.