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Nice Surprises in a Ho-Hum Package

2005 Ford Five Hundred sedan

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page G01

No amount of hype will get young, hip people to buy the 2005 Ford Five Hundred sedan. The car is not made for them.

It is a conservatively styled affair, another offering from the Government School of Design, which will look good in official motor fleets worldwide, especially in executive black or civil servant white.

2005 Ford Five Hundred sedan

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: Completely subjective. I just don't like the way it looks, not at all.

Ride, acceleration and handling: As good in all categories as any comparable mid-size sedan, if not better. Do yourself a favor and drive this one before you allow its looks to turn you off.

Head-turning quotient: It turned not a single head, not one. No oohs, no ahhs, no sneers. I felt like the Invisible Man in this car. No thief will pay attention to it. Then, again, who knows? This one is so vanilla, if it is involved in a crime, witnesses will have a hard time describing it.

Layout/body style: The Ford Five Hundred is a front-engine, four-door sedan with a traditional trunk. The front passenger seat folds forward, and so does a portion of the rear seat -- allowing you to carry long items. It is available with front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive.

Engine/transmissions: The Five Hundred is equipped with Ford's Duratec, 3-liter V-6 engine. It develops 203 horsepower at 5,750 revolutions per minute and 207 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm. It can be linked to either a six-speed automatic or a continuously variable automatic transmission, both of which are designed to help reduce fuel consumption.

Capacities: The Five Hundred has seating for five people. At 21 cubic feet, trunk space is the largest in the mid-size sedan class. The fuel tank holds 19 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: I averaged 25 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving.

Safety: Four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front, solid rear) with anti-lock protection; variable-deployment-speed front air bags; traction control; side and head bags, the latter with rollover sensor control, are optional.

Price: Base price on the tested all-wheel-drive Five Hundred SE is $26,145. Dealer's invoice price on the base model is $23,900. Price as tested is $28,710, including $1,915 in options and a $650 destination charge. Dealer's invoice price with options and destination charge is $26,256.

Purse-strings note: The Five Hundred is an excellent mid-size car in a plainer-than-the-plainest-Jane body. It is surrounded by competitors -- the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chrysler 300 and Pontiac G6, to name a few. You can bargain.

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In short, there is nothing sexy about the Ford Five Hundred or its various iterations -- the base SE, upscale SEL or top-of-the-line Limited. Ford wants it that way.

In eschewing a stylish exterior, Ford is going after customers who value the trust and reliability of a long-term relationship over the flash and sizzle of a hot spin around the block.

Ford feels that those older, mature people, folks who have been tested by life's responsibilities, simply want a car that is safe, comfortable and dependable -- something to justify their faith in ownership. In that regard, the new Five Hundred delivers.

It should.

The Five Hundred is based on the same platform used for the Volvo S60 and S80 sedans and the Volvo XC90 wagon/sport-utility vehicle. Ford Motor Co. owns the Volvo car division. The Five Hundred is the first Ford sedan born of that union.

As a result, the Five Hundred offers Volvo safety at a Ford price; upscale European interior ergonomics in a Middle America, borderline-ascetic wrapping; and exceptionally good handling and overall excellent road performance in a car that most law enforcement officials will ignore because they'll think it's one of their own.

Frankly, I was surprised. I initially judged the car by its cover and was so disappointed in that assessment that I was tempted not to drive it at all. But I drove the all-wheel-drive version of the Five Hundred SE anyway. I was so impressed by its performance and solid feel that I continued to drive it long after substantially more attractive and expensive cars showed up in my driveway.

There were so many good points:

The front seats have high, sturdy, yet comfortable backs. I felt supported, able to drive long distances without suffering fatigue. The car's driving position is high -- in keeping with its partial XC90 wagon/sport-utility heritage. It offered a commanding view of the road. I felt in control.

There has been much whining in the automotive media, including complaints from me, about Ford's decision to go with a 203-horsepower V-6 engine in a mid-size sedan market where 300-horsepower engines, and those with even more kick, are becoming commonplace. We all need to have our heads examined.

There is nothing the least bit wrong with Ford's 3-liter V-6. It delivers power smoothly and consistently. In the case of the tested all-wheel-drive Five Hundred SE, power is sent wheel to wheel, on an as-needed basis, via a fuel-efficient, six-speed automatic transmission.

A continuously variable transmission, one that does not have fixed gear ratios in the manner of a conventional gearbox, is available. I'd stick with the six-speed, which appears to have less of a chance to cause trouble farther down the road.

All-wheel-drive provides more peace of mind on wet or snow-covered streets. But the front-wheel-drive Five Hundred models will do quite well in the same mess, and will save you money at the gas pump and in the new-car dealer's showroom. Budget-minded buyers may want to consider that.

In summary, there is little about which to wax eloquent here. Eloquence generally does not reside in the prosaic; and I'm hard-pressed to think of a car more prosaic, more gifted with reverse snobbery, than the Five Hundred. It makes an unequivocal statement: "All I want is a car that works and treats me well." For some people, that is enough. But are there enough of those people to make the Five Hundred, which replaces the Ford Taurus, a success? We'll see.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company