2005 Ford Five Hundred
2005 Ford Five Hundred. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Paul Williams

For years, automotive writers and consumers have wondered when Ford would introduce new cars to the North American market. After all, the Taurus has soldiered on for 18 years and is Ford’s only intermediate-sized family sedan. With the introduction of new models from import and domestic manufacturers, sales of the aging Ford Taurus have slipped considerably.

True, the Mustang continues to be popular for Ford, but its platform is a variation of one introduced in 1979. The compact Focus became a worldwide success, but suffered many recalls in North America. This year, Europe gets a new Focus. North America gets a refresh of the existing model.

And as for a car positioned between the Focus and the Taurus, there isn’t one. Ford’s attention instead has appeared to be on its lucrative sport-utilities and trucks, and last year’s important introduction of the all-new Ford F150 pickup.

But the automaker, which is calling 2004 The Year of the Car, has been busy behind the scenes. This fall look for several new and interesting Ford automobile introductions.

One of these is the GT, a limited production supercar that has enthusiasts buzzing. Another is the new Cobra, continuing Ford’s association with its originator, Carroll Shelby. But more important for consumers are the new Five Hundred sedan, the Freestyle crossover, and a striking new Mustang, with more than a nod to its past.

The Five Hundred will become Ford’s flagship sedan. It’s notable for several reasons, chief among which is the platform upon which it’s built, an adaptation of the Volvo P2 platform used for the XC90 SUV and S80 wagon/sedan. According to Ford vice president Phil Martens, “While the industry tries to make car-based crossovers, the Ford Five Hundred stands alone as the first crossover-based car.”

By using this platform, Ford is able to build SUV attributes into a car, like higher seating, increased interior space, and optional all-wheel drive. The Five Hundred has considerably more interior space than the full-size Crown Victoria, even though it’s only 25 centimeters shorter. Its trunk is truly cavernous (Ford says it will fit eight sets of golf clubs; it looks big enough to accommodate a few golf caddies as well).

2005 Ford Freestyle
2005 Ford Freestyle

2005 Ford Mustang
2005 Ford Mustang

Carroll Shelby with Cobra
Carroll Shelby with Cobra

Ford GT
Ford GT. Click image to enlarge

Somewhat square in its styling, the Five Hundred is about the same width as the Taurus and slightly longer, but 11.7 cm taller. It rides on a wheelbase that’s 11.0 cm longer. The new car won’t immediately replace the Taurus, however, which will remain in Ford’s lineup for another year or two (Ford owns the Hertz rental company, and Hertz uses a lot of Tauruses). Its eventual successor will be a new model that was to carry the name Futura, until Ford was told it no longer holds rights to that name (the Pep Boys autoparts chain in the US snagged the name for one of its tires).

The Five Hundred’s 3.0-litre Duratec V6 engine makes 200 horsepower – less than one might expect – and uses regular fuel. Two transmissions will be offered: a six-speed automatic and a CVT (continuously variable transmission). Both are designed for smooth operation and fuel economy, and their use will be a first in the mainstream market segment for family sedans.

Tellingly, George Bucher, chief designer of the Five Hundred, describes it in terms of having “road authority” and “presence” (rather than using adjectives like beautiful or sleek). With this design Ford is emphasizing refinement and lack of ostentation, and while it’s by no means unattractive, neither is the Five Hundred particularly exciting. If anything, it’s a return to the traditional car form, but featuring the latest safety and technical innovations. It’s substantial, solid and spacious, with a look that shouldn’t date quickly.

The same powertrain will be used in the Freestyle, also set to debut this fall, and also built on an adaptation of the Volvo P2 platform. Categorizing this vehicle is not straightforward – Ford simply calls it a crossover. It’s not simply a wagon version of the Five Hundred, although it has a wagon-like profile, but nor is it an SUV or a minivan.

If anything, this tall vehicle with room for seven passengers is reminiscent of the Chrysler Pacifica, but it differs in interior packaging and exterior styling (in fact, when showing the Freestyle to automotive writers at a recent event in Dearborn, Michigan, a Pacifica was placed nearby so we could compare them).

The Freestyle is not as high-waisted as the Pacifica, however, and because of this feels a bit brighter and more spacious inside. The third-row “Hide �n Go” seating offers more than temporary accommodations for occasional passengers (although it’s still a trick to get back there) and headroom for third-row occupants is maximized by subtly raising the roof height toward the rear of the vehicle. Ford says there’s 34% more cargo capacity behind the rear seat than its Chrysler competitor, and overall the vehicle is lighter, although the 200-hp V6 engine is less powerful than the Pacifica’s 250-hp motor.

The Freestyle will feature numerous and comprehensive safety technologies, including a version of Volvo’s Side Impact Protection System (SIPS), available side curtain airbags, reinforced body structure and standard anti-lock brakes.

Like the Five Hundred, the Freestyle will be available with a six-speed automatic transmission, a CVT and all-wheel drive (the Volvo Haldex system used on that company’s cars and SUVs).

And also like the Five Hundred, the interior of the Freestyle is very large. It offers numerous seating configurations, storage bins and containers, and the second and third row seats, along with the front passenger seat will fold flat to produce three metres of pass-through storage capacity. Although it has many attributes of an SUV, the floor is not high off the ground, so you don’t have to hoist yourself up into the seats when entering the vehicle. Like the Five Hundred, it will arrive in three levels of trim: SE, SEL and Limited.

To give you an idea of who the Freestyle might suit, a friend who’s about to re-marry recently asked me what kind of vehicle would be good for him, his soon-to-be-wife, and their combined four kids. He doesn’t want a minivan, he said, or an SUV (although he kind of likes the SUV image), but he wants cargo room and safety. A Freestyle-type vehicle would seem to fit that family’s needs.

The third major Ford introduction this year is the new Mustang. Anyone who’s seen the 1968 movie Bullitt knows that it featured two stars: Steve McQueen and the Mustang he drove in the film’s memorable car chase (Mopar fans will, of course, disagree).

That Mustang, the ’68 Fastback GT, represents what is for many the pinnacle of Mustang design. It’s this late-1960’s look that emerges as the styling basis for the 2005 Mustang to be released this fall.

This car is a lot more than a simple revisit to an older vehicle, however. While people familiar with Mustang history should be well pleased with the exciting lines of the new model, the design stands on its own as a superb rendition of the coupe form — it is at once modern and classic.

Chief designer Larry Erickson says his goal was to, “create a fresh, modern-looking car, while not confusing anyone about the fact that it’s a Mustang through and through.” Mr. Erickson, a recent inductee to the National Hot Rod and Custom Car Museum Hall of Fame, feels that he “got it right.”

The new car arrives with V6 or V8 (in the GT) engines, both more powerful than current Mustang powerplants. The 4.0-litre SOHC V6 makes 202-hp and 235 lbs/ft. torque and the new 4.6-litre V8 generates 300-hp and 315 lbs/ft. torque. Five-speed manual transmissions are standard and a five-speed automatic transmission (also used in the Lincoln LS and Ford Thunderbird) is available.

The car is based on a platform that’s partially shared with the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type. Its wheelbase is 14.5 cm longer than the earlier Fox platform, which enables the construction of a longer, sleeker car than the current model. Although styling cues from earlier Mustangs are found throughout the vehicle (grille, dashboard, three-element taillights, sculpted panels behind the doors, rear medallion on the trunk, rear windows) designers were careful not to overdo it. Some might say that in consequence the V6 actually looks a bit plain, although like Mustangs of old, numerous options and accessories will be available. The 16″ Halibrand-style wheels are particularly nice.

One small feature that has generated considerable interest is the Mustang’s colour-configurable instrument cluster. You can choose from a palette of 125 colours to create lighting for your preferred night-time driving environment.

Pricing for the Five Hundred, Freestyle and Mustang won’t be announced until closer to their introduction dates, but Ford Canada executives assure me that they are completely aware of the need to be competitive.

“We’re not going to make the mistake of pricing these vehicles too high,” said Bill Rowe, Freestyle brand manager. Adds Peter Jansen, Ford of Canada Mustang brand manager, “We know what’s been successful in the past, where the right price points are, and we’re fully aware of the need to make these new vehicles affordable.”

With three models, Ford is ready to re-establish itself in the car market. However, its domestic competition is not standing still. Chrysler and General Motors are already launching products that could distract buyers from Ford’s fall introductions. It seems to be the year of the car for them, too.

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