Reviews in the Rear-View

The 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid: 
Gaia is like --  Everywhere

The 2005 Ford Five Hundred: a Revival With Many Virtues

By ALAN WELLIKOFF | Originally published in the New York Sun on March 25, 2005.

Back in the days of deep-offset hypoid axles and Cruise-O-Matic drives, Ford offered up the 500 suffix to denote a be-chromed exaltation of the previous year's line-topper. Thus, the Fairlane sired the Fairlane 500 and the Galaxie gave way to the Galaxie 500.

The Galaxie 500 would go on to assume an XL designation, an example of the runaway badging that once brought us a Ford LTD Crown Victoria LX. No matter: Weighing a fender down with enough names to embarrass an Hungarian prince doesn't seem to obtain anymore. Instead, we get the old Ford 500 designation revived and spelled out as the new Five Hundred. Actually, in our case, we got a Ford Five Hundred Limited. Still, while a Ford sedan by any other name might smell as sweet, we can't remember when we liked one so much.

Pimped like an '80s Crown Vic (or an understudy in the Bratislava production of Prince Pikkó and Jutka Perzsi ), Hungarian Crown Prince Otto von Hapsburg had a shorter -- if nobler -- name

Some of the reasons for this are easy to figure out once you know that Ford based the full-size Five Hundred sedan on a platform built by the company's Volvo subsidiary. And, to be sure, the American-made four-door is no less shy about displaying its European sense of style than your average Apache dancer. And while virtually nothing the company has built in the postwar period has been able to shake that peculiarly corn-fed Ford "look," the Five Hundred appears to have Audi and Passat bloodlines coursing through it. 

High praise, indeed.

The Five Hundred's handsomely swept roofline and pleasingly compounded body curves comprise a smart shape that in size falls between the competing Chrysler 300 and Ford's own Crown Vic.

Sharing its basic design with the Mercury Montego and Ford's Freestyle crossover sport-utility, the Five Hundred's seats sit 4 inches above those of other sedans. It's as if, in this age when car models shape-shift faster than phone-internet-cable packages, the Five Hundred sedan is attempting a crossover into a crossover, which itself splits the difference between wagons and SUVs. 

The car comes in base SE, midrange SEL and high-zoot Limited models, all equipped with front- or all-wheel-drive and all propelled by a 203-liter V6 linked to either a continuously variable transmission or standard six-speed automatic, depending on model and drive train. While anti-lock brakes and traction control come standard on the Five Hundred, it has no anti-skid system.

The tester was a front driving Limited model equipped with the six-speed automatic. In $26,000 high trim, it came with 18-inch spoked aluminum wheels and heated outside mirrors not standard on lower orders of the car. Inside, the wine-colored Limited had powered and heated front seats, was leather lined, and came with an optional safety package that included side-curtain airbags and a reverse-gear proximity sensor. The cabin's real story, however, lay in the enlivening sense of comfort its superior command position afforded. The Accord-like proportions of the Five Hundred's clear, accessible, and handsome dashboard enhance this happy state.

Yet even these virtues must take a back seat to the Five Hundred's back seat. Here sprawls an area feeling more like those found in Jaguars for all the limo-like head and legroom it provides. But wait, there's more! Just when you figure this expanse of rear seating has had to compromise trunk space, you pop the Five Hundred's short-deck lid to uncover what Ford claims is the largest trunk of any sedan, with an area cavernous enough to attract a colony of bats.

We took this prospective bat mobile on a shakedown that ran deep into exurban Gotham. Ford claims a 7.5-second zero-to-60 acceleration time for its front drive Five Hundreds, although its takeoff from a standing start sometimes exhibits lag. On the highway, the car allowed for moderate wind noise, while on back roads, its direct steering and four-wheel disc brakes made twisting turns easy to negotiate despite some minor tendencies toward body lean. These things aside, the Ford Five Hundred Limited imparted a feeling of smoothly powered and managed heft. Driving it, we enjoyed its capacity and poise. And while this platform may go on to become the basis for the new Crown Vic, there's no need for a Ford Five Hundred 500 or anything like that.

The 2005 Ford Freestyle: Mercurial, If Not Quite a Mercury
By ALAN WELLIKOFF | Originally published in the New York Sun, April 1, 2005

Freestyle. Sure, it's a name implying a certain versatility, but it's also one from which you can infer something of this vehicle's mercurial nature. Based on the same Volvo-developed platform as was the Ford Five Hundred, you can reasonably view the Freestyle as the Five Hundred's car-like station wagon. Looking at it, though, we see a midsize SUV; inside, it resembles a seven-passenger minivan. In fact, Mercury's minivan, the Monterey, also uses the Freestyle chassis.

The Freestyle's free style reflects the kind of automotive morphing for which the car industry came up with its "crossover" designation - although Ford might even see this term as too limiting.

Regardless, the vehicle is a version of that subset of SUVs known as crossovers. 

Save maybe for its innovative use of a continuously variable transmission, there's little about Freestyle to save you from free-floating ennui. However, the Ford is roomy, competent, offers smooth handling, and was judged to be the safest vehicle in its class. As Ford's first crossover, it's the company's answer to the favorably reviewed Chrysler Pacifica.

Imagining the Freestyle as the station-wagon version of the Ford Five Hundred requires one to overcome the notion that the two vehicles should strongly resemble each another. Certainly, both have that peculiar cast of all-American exuberance that's graced nearly every Ford since wagons were woody and Volvos unidentifiable. However, in its styling, the Five Hundred calls upon more German influences than does the Freestyle, which instead sports a rising roofline that suggests the occurrence of an abomination between a Nissan Xterra and a Greyhound Scenicruiser somewhere in its past.

Freestyle or Doggie Style? Scenicruisers needn't mount Xterras to look like they've been caught in flagrante delicto.

That said, the two Fords also share a great deal.

Like the Five Hundred, the Ford Freestyle's torque can emerge from a 203-horsepower V6 to course through either a front- or all-wheel-drive system while governed by the aforementioned CVT, with uses infinitely changeable drive ratios rather than the staged ones found in conventional trannies. Both also come in base SE, midrange SEL, and deluxe Limited trims permitting various arrangements of standard and optionally equipped tire sizes, airbag arrays, interior materials, and other features. In addition, both are roomy, but accelerate in a way that seems slower than their claimed zero-to-60 times state.

The test Freestyle was a midrange SEL with 17-inch aluminum wheels (versus the Limited's 18-inch versions), antilock brakes, fog lamps, and front-wheel drive. With a base price of just more than $26,000, it had the reverse-gear sensing system and such interior-based options as leather trimmed seating, a three-passenger second row bench, and both side air curtain and front side airbag arrays to bring its price to just more than $30,000.

Thus enhanced, the interior's utilitarian setting was set off by a simple and easily read dashboard, excellent command position, and easily accessed and comfortable front seats. This comfort also extended to the Freestyle's rear, where headroom and legroom abounded, and even the third row of seats seems adequate for occupancy by adults. Not only did the two back seat rows fold flat, but so did the SUV's front passenger seatback. This provided an unusually large amount of storage area that included a 9.5-foot conduit for lengthy cargo.