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Ford Five Hundred Limited AWD Test Drive

When Five Hundred is not enough

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating

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2006 Ford Five Hundred front view

Five Hundred lacks any strong design cues, positive or negative.

Photo © Jason Fogelson
Many cars aspire to greatness, but a great car is more than just a collection of good ideas. The 2006 Ford Five Hundred Limited AWD is chock full of good ideas. With a base price of $28,230 ($33,130 as tested), a 3 year/36,000 mile warranty and EPA estimates of 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway, the 2006 Ford Five Hundred has a 24 valve V6 engine, a sophisticated continuously variable transmission, and a ton of standard equipment. But is greatness included in the Ford Five Hundred's purchase price?

First glance: Familiarity breeds contempt

Ford has a couple of the best-designed cars on the market today -- the Mustang and the GT. Singular designs with a cohesive vision driving every choice. The Five Hundred seems to have emerged from a completely different company. From stem to stern, the Five Hundred is undistinguished and generic. There's nothing particularly wrong with the design, it just takes no risks and offers nothing in return. You won't spend a lot of time in your garage gazing longingly at the Five Hundred, admiring its arched roofline, big taillights or body-colored front and rear bumpers. Your teenager will not doodle pictures of the Five Hundred on his notebook during math class. We're talking transportation here, not the stuff of daydreams.

Perhaps Ford is making a wise choice, driving down the middle of the road with the Five Hundred, rather than choosing a lane like the Chrysler 300, a car with a polarizing design. The Five Hundred opens itself up to unflattering comparison by its lack of design distinction. It's not as cool as the 300; not as modern as the new Toyota Camry; not as classy as the VW Passat -- the kinds of comparisons that don't enhance the Five Hundred at all. That's the problem with familiarity: It breeds contempt.

Continued below…

In the Driver's Seat: Plain is OK, poor quality isn't

2006 Ford Five Hundred dashboard

Five Hundred's dash features clear, black-on-white analog gauges.

Photo © Jason Fogelson
I don't mind a plain interior -- I'll take plain over fussy any day of the week. Five Hundred's interior is pretty straightforward, with a minimum of fuss and bother. The fake wood trim turns me off, but the standard leather seating surfaces are nice and the seats are broad and firm. If you like a classic wide driver's seat and upright driving position, you'll feel right at home behind the wheel of the Five Hundred. The instrument panel is cleanly laid out, with clear, simple black-on-white gauges in all the right places. My test vehicle was equipped with a $1,995 optional navigation system, which I would definitely spring for. I'd skip the $995 family entertainment system, though, and make my kids look out the windows or annoy each other for entertainment.

My big complaint with my test vehicle was fit and finish on the interior. The dash was lumpy and ill-fitting. There's a handy pop-up compartment on the top of the dash -- on my vehicle, the lid had several ugly bubbles, didn't close properly and looked just awful. Several other places on the dash had uneven gaps and seams where disparate materials met. I can just imagine how sloppy the whole interior is going to look in a few years, especially after some hard use by a family.

On the Road: CVT is Five Hundred's best feature

The best news on the Five Hundred is its continuously variable transmission (CVT). Most automatic transmissions on cars are planetary geared transmission -- that is, they have a number of distinct clutches, gearsets and speeds. The gears and clutches keep the engine's revolutions per minute (rpm) at the right level to provide power for the conditions. A CVT doesn't have traditional gears or speeds -- it has pulleys and belts that allow it to precisely match rpm to demand without jolting or lurching between gears. A well-designed CVT can be more efficient and smoother than a planetary transmission, with fewer parts and simpler operation. CVTs are common on tools, on tractors and on scooters, and will be showing up on more and more cars in the future. Leonardo da Vinci actually designed a CVT in one of his sketches in 1490, so the concept has been around for a long time.

The Five Hundred's CVT does the job very well -- if you didn't know it had one, you'd probably think it just had a very slick conventional tranny. Combined with a transparent All-Wheel Drive system, Five Hundred is sure-footed and smooth on the road. There's a little more float and body roll to the chassis than I like -- I prefer a stiffer ride with more road feel.

Journey's End: Will it stand out by blending in?

2006 Ford Five Hundred rear view

2006 Ford Five Hundred rear viewBig triangular taillights are reminiscent of the 2006 Toyota Camry.

Photo © Jason Fogelson
Five Hundred is wading in some deep water in the large near-luxury marketplace. In addition to stablemate Mercury Montego (the Five Hundred's mechanical twin and cosmetic cousin), all the big name competitors in this segment are well-established, refined and quite distinctive. With 205 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, Five Hundred's 3.0 liter V6 is a little overpowered by the competition. The Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima and Volkswagen Passat 3.6 all trump Five Hundred's power. Chysler's 300 can be ordered with a 5.7 liter Hemi V8 that can blow the doors off of the competition, and still get competitive gas mileage.

Excitement is in the eye of the beholder. I want more style for my $30k; you may find the Five Hundred to your liking. Ford sold a lot of Tauruses over the years, and I always thought that car was bland to the point of ugliness. To me, the real Ford Five Hundred was the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Convertible with its retractable hard top. That car had greatness: beautiful lines, high-tech features (for its day), and unforgettable ambiance. I can't imagine waxing nostalgic about the 2006 Ford Five Hundred in 49 years. Let's make an appointment -- I'll see you at the car show in 2055.

Go to the Ford Five Hundred image gallery

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