2005 Ford Five Hundred
Ford redefines family sedan
By Paul Lienert, and Anita Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
DETROIT U.S. automakers would have us believe that 2004 is the Year of the Car. But here in the hometown of the domestic auto industry, it really is shaping up as the Rebirth of the Family Sedan.
The battle for Car of the Year honors is being waged most fiercely between two crosstown contenders, the 2005 Chrysler 300 and the 2005 Ford Five Hundred all-new flagship sedans for their respective brands that resurrect number nameplates from the 60s on modern hardware thats as good as anything Detroit has ever built.
If the big Chrysler four-door reeks of sass and presence and muscle, the new Ford is all about finesse, refinement and sophistication.
The two rivals are priced within spitting distance of each other the 300 starts at $23,920, the Five Hundred at $22,795, including destination. Both models seat five adults in comfort, and both are available with all-wheel drive.
But the Ford Five Hundred, in nearly every other respect, couldn't be more different. Phil Martens, Ford's group vice president for product creation, bills it as an affordable dream for middle America.Curiously, its roots lie across the Atlantic.
Like Chrysler did with the 300, Ford tapped its European affiliate in this case, Swedish subsidiary Volvo for help in developing the new Five Hundred sedan and its sister vehicle, the 2005 Freestyle wagon.
Volvo provided the basic architecture a corporate front-wheel-drive platform known internally as P2X as well as its expertise in all-wheel drive and safety.
While the European influence is evident in design and vehicle dynamics, the end result is a new kind of Ford that no doubt will help reshape Americas perception of a mid-priced family sedan.
That's not to say the Five Hundred is midsize; its overall proportions and mass put it squarely in the full-size segment. At 200.7 inches, the Five Hundred is longer than the Chrysler 300 longer even than a Buick LeSabre. Its also wider and taller than both of those models, although Ford notes that the Five Hundred is still nearly a foot shorter than the big Crown Victoria sedan that has been the brand's full-size staple for decades.
When the new Mazda-based Ford Fusion sedan arrives in fall 2005 as a 2006 model, the midsize Fusion and full-size Five Hundred will straddle the bracket now occupied by the Ford Taurus, which is being phased out of production over the next two years.
Although their exterior and interior dimensions are remarkably similar, the Five Hundred feels less like a traditional domestic sedan than the 300, which rides on a rear-wheel-drive chassis developed with assistance from Mercedes-Benz.
Where ride quality and comfort are the 300s forte, thanks in part to its ample 120-inch wheelbase, the Five Hundred handles with more grace and agility, and feels more like a Volkswagen than a Mercedes.
A wheelbase that's 7 inches shorter than the 300, coupled with four-wheel independent suspension and front and rear stabilizer bars, contribute to the car's suppleness.
Chrysler made a point of offering several engine options on the 300, including a massive 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that packs plenty of muscle, in the best Detroit tradition. Not so the Five Hundred, which despite its size comes with only a single engine a relatively modest, twin-cam 3.0-liter V-6 that makes 203 horsepower.
On front-wheel-drive models, the V-6 is mated to a new state-of-the-art six-speed automatic transmission purchased from Japanese supplier Aisin AW, while all-wheel-drive variants are fitted with an equally advanced, continuously variable automatic transmission developed in cooperation with German supplier ZF.
Chrysler offers only a choice of four- and five-speed automatics (the latter sourced from Mercedes-Benz). We sampled prototypes of the Five Hundred in various configurations, and thought the 3.0-liter V-6 had surprisingly good acceleration initially, with both transmissions providing smooth and seamless shifts at different speeds.
But the Five Hundred is a surprisingly hefty vehicle the base model weighs more than a LeSabre, while a well-equipped all-wheel drive edition is nearly two tons and the V-6 quickly runs out of torque as vehicle speeds increase.
Ford has no plans to offer a V-8 on the Five Hundred, and a larger, more powerful V-6 is several model years away.
The Five Hundred steps away from the 300 in another significant respect its elegant, understated cabin, which looks like a distinctively American interpretation of a fine European-type cockpit.
The instrument binnacle houses a complement of traditional round analog gauges, while the center stack incorporates simple and well-thought-out controls for the audio and climate systems.
Ford designers under group design vice president J Mays employed soft-touch materials on the dash and satin-aluminum trim on door handles and other pieces. The base SE model has carbon-fiber appliques, while the mid-level SEL and top-of-the-line Limited get rich-looking burled-wood appliques.
All Five Hundreds come with a nice array of standard equipment, including 17-inch wheels and tires, power driver's seat, power mirrors, air conditioning, remote keyless entry, power windows with one-touch up/down for the driver, an overhead console and an AM-FM stereo with CD player.
The SEL and Limited versions add more equipment, although a rear DVD entertainment system is not yet among the options. Ford designed a command seating position for driver and passenger that is four inches higher off the floor than usual for a family sedan. Optional power adjustable pedals ($175), available only on the Limited model, will help shorter drivers adapt.
Mays and his cohorts refer to the design of the Five Hundred as high package,meaning the roof is taller than usual. Indeed, the car stands three inches taller than the LeSabre and an inch and a half taller than the 300. That translates into generous interior space and a cabin that's larger than those of nearly every competitor in the segment including the 300.
Cargo space is also plentiful; Ford says the Five Hundred's trunk is larger than that of the full-size Crown Victoria and is far and away the largest in the class.
Safety equipment is a mixed bag. Four-wheel disc brakes with antilock brakes are standard on all models, while traction control is standard on all-wheel drive models and optional on others. An unfortunate oversight is the lack of stability control, which provides even better all-weather safety and security than traction control. An optional reverse sensing system ($250) is available on SEL and Limited models. Curiously, Ford made side air bags for front-seat occupants and side curtain air bags for front and rear occupants an extra-cost option on all Five Hundreds $795 on the base SE and $595 on SEL and Limited.
A final word about styling: Martens says the Five Hundred was designed to appeal to a wider audience than the Chrysler 300, so it is deliberately not as edgy or controversial as the big Chrysler. We think the exterior design of the Five Hundred errs on the side of caution, which may hold great appeal for a broad range of buyers in different age groups.
The Five Hundred, Martens says, is aimed at the person who makes $50,000-$70,000 a year and wants a car that looks more expensive than it is.
Which brings us back around to pricing. Although Ford product planners originally envisioned a premium sedan that would start at around $26,000 or higher, the company elected to aggressively position the Five Hundred to better compete with the Chrysler 300 and the two best-selling mid-size family sedans, the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord (which, incidentally, are considerably smaller than the Ford or Chrysler).
Ford has priced the various Five Hundred models in logical stair-steps. A base SE with all-wheel drive, for instance, starts at $24,495, while a mid-level SEL with front-wheel drive is priced from $24,795. A range-topping Five Hundred Limited with all-wheel drive has a sticker of $28,495, which can be nudged over $30,000 with just a few options.
The final skirmish in the Battle of Family Sedans will be fought in driveways across middle America. But will red states opt for the more sedately styled Ford and blue states swing to the splashier Chrysler?
Check back with us after the election for the final tally.
How the Five Hundred measures up
Five Hundred 300 LeSabre Custom Camry LE Accord LX
Wheelbase 112.9 in. 120.0 in. 112.2 in. 107.1 in. 107.9 in.
Length 200.7 in. 196.8 in. 200.0 in. 189.2 in. 189.5 in.
Width 74.5 in. 74.1 in. 73.5 in. 70.7 in. 71.5 in.
Height 60.1 in. 58.4 in. 57.0 in. 58.7 in. 57.1 in.
Curb weight 3,643 lbs. 3,711 lbs 3,567 lbs. 3,340 lbs. 3,109 lbs.
Engine DOHC 3.0L V-6 DOHC 2.7L V-6 OHV 3.8L V-6 DOHC 3.0L V-6 SOHC 3.0L V-6
Output 203 hp 190 hp 205 hp 210 hp 240 hp
Base price $22,795 $23,920 $27,150 $22,895 $23,790
* Prices include destination; Source: Automakers, Kelley Blue Book