The cars we loved.
Ford Motor Company is on a roll, but it wasn’t always that way. As recently as the turn of the century (this century), plans to revamp Fords big car line had its share of mishaps. The car in the middle of all the corporate miscalculation was the Ford Five Hundred. The name was meant to conjure images of fabulous Fords of the 60’s like the Fairlaine and Galaxie 500. Unlike those cars with their low wide and sporty stances, the Five Hundred was the polar opposite.
Intended as a replacement for the Crown Victoria and to some extent the Taurus, the Five Hundred was a full sized front wheel drive car based on the 2000 Prodigy concept. The Prodigy and the early conceptual sketches released of the upcoming Five Hundred in 2003 created a stir, in anticipation of its sleek Audi like design. When the time came to introduced the actual car, what materialized was a big upright sedan with an oddly SUV like stance. Sure it was offered as an all-wheel drive car in any one of it three configurations (SE/SEL/Limited), but even the base front wheel powered cars had a high ground clearance. Mercury had its version of the car called the Montegro. Fittingly, a lukewarm crossover like vehicle called the Ford Freestyle shared the same D3 platform from Ford. The platform was also the basis of a hand full of Volvo cars and midsized SUV’s, proving that the D3/P2 platform was versatile if not the starting point for great looking vehicles. Early cars had a German made ZF CVT transmission that was later replaced by 6-speed automatic.
The Five Hundred was not all bad. Its high safety rating, generous interior room and standard equipment made it a good buy for motorists looking for high value in a modern American made full sized car. Fords other full size offering, the Crown Victoria, was hopelessly dated but still preferred by Taxi drivers, Police departments and elderly people everywhere. Even as the Five Hundred began its sharp decline, sales the Crown Victoria remained steady. Part of the problem for the Five Hundred was its single power plant offering: a 203 hp V6. Normally the 3.0 would have been more than enough to move lesser Mustangs or the Fusion SE, but in the bigger, heavier Five Hundred it was hopelessly inadequate for anything resembling spirited acceleration. The single engine option may have been one of the main reasons the Five Hundred did not replace the Crown Vic for fleet car duty, even though it had a roomy trunk and more than enough interior volume for cop car or taxi duty.
The Five Hundred handled well, was quiet and had a composed ride. The all-wheel drive option was impressive and unusual for a car in its price range, but most buyers went over to the Fusion if they stayed at the Ford dealerships at all when sedan shopping. It was so bad at one point that many Ford dealers did not even stock the Five Hundred. As full-sized American sedans go the wildy popular Chrysler 300 with its bold gansta hotrod like looks was shaking up the big car market. The Chrysler was well engineered and fun to look at, something the new Impala could claim (to some extent), but not the Five Hundred by any stretch of the imagination. Even the otherwise boring Toyota Avalon had more personality.
Arguably, the main reason the Five Hundred was a flop was probably due to its lack luster design. Like the revised Impala, the Five Hundred looked neither luxurious nor sporty. Consumer reports rated the Five Hundred favorably, in much the way it might have liked a dependable washing machine or toaster. The motoring press was not so kind due to the underpowered engine and anonymous looks. It just looked plain, with big lights, simple details and a truck like ride height. It even made the Crown Vic look sleek. It’s no wonder the public stayed away. The crossover derivatives fared better, but were not much more popular. Buyers of large near luxury cars wanted the image of luxury, sportiness or both. The Five Hundred had neither –just rock solid build quality and comfort.
The legacy of the Five Hundred may have been that it hasten Fords early transition to cars as opposed to Trucks and SUV as the receptor of its full marketing, design and engineering attention. Ford started the transition earlier, and as a result was in a much better position when the market tanked for Chrysler and GM.
While this painful transition was happening, the Five Hundred went a way for the 2008 model year (did anyone notice) and came back slightly restyled, but now called a Taurus. Nice trick. The Taurus name carried a proud history of innovation at Ford. It was hoped the association would rub off on the memory of the Five Hundred. Mercury even resurrected the Sable name for its clone. The makeover helped sales, as two of the biggest issues were addressed: power and design.
The power part was more successful as the new Five Hundred/Taurus had a 3.5 L 263 hp V6, making it quite responsive. The interior remained comfortable and fully equipped. Outside, Fords Cylon Raider like grill was prominent, taking styling cues from the Fusion. 18 in chrome wheels made the transformed car look almost purposeful, dare I say sporty. The new and improved Taurus would use the old Five Hundred bodies for another two years before becoming the exciting looking and performing full sized sedan that the Five Hundred should have been in 2005.