By on November 3, 2004

Don't do it! Applebee's. Outback. Red Lobster. Mediocre eateries are carpet-bombing America's landscape with the sort of scorched-earth expansionist verve that would chafe Sam Walton. How is that, exactly? To a chain, most such restaurants have been designed to look, feel, and taste the same regardless of locale. Accidental tourists who dined in a Scranton Ruby Tuesday's have a sporting chance of finding the bathroom in the Seattle franchise without asking the waitstaff. Outsized, filling portions dominate, with the quantities served constituting something of an apology for the food itself. And yet, to gorge oneself stupid on basket after basket of Riblets is to leave feeling strangely bloated and unsatisfied.

So it is with Ford's new Five Hundred. Make no bones about it: Dearborn's 'Year of the Car' centerpiece is no gourmet's feast. More to the point, the Five Hundred is a blandly flavored proposition inside and out, enticing consumers on portion size, a smorgasbord of ingredients and a low price point. Like the themed restaurants in front of which it will inevitably park, the Five-Hundred is a blatant attempt to appeal to the lowest-common denominator, blueprinted to offend as few as possible.

'Buyers nursing an SUV-hangover will take solace in the Five Hundred's airy, generously proportioned interior'To begin with, Ford design guru J Mays' verbal tap-dancing notwithstanding, the Fiver is a visual snoozer. Dearborn's dapper design daddy has touted the car's 'sophisticated' lines to any wag foolish enough to listen. But the reality is that Ford's Five Hundred does little to quiet the critics' charge that Mays has penned the same sedan regardless of whose corporate parasol he finds himself sunning under. The rounded wheel openings, arching roofline and refined yet non-committal face are serialized Mays – unmistakable echoes of his work on the VW Passat and Ford Mondeo.

Inside, it's more of the same: an ergonomically sound dashboard, milquetoast in flavor. Like the washroom in a Des Moines TGIFriday's, unfamiliar eyes (and hands) will find everything intuitively. This is just as well, as the 70's era digital telltales for the center stack wash out in bright sunlight anyhow. On the positive side, buyers nursing an SUV-hangover will take solace in the Five Hundred's airy, generously proportioned interior. The trunk is equally epic. Without resorting to a comedic protuberance (e.g. BMW's 7-series), Ford's packaging boffins have somehow created a space bigger than many Manhattan efficiencies. After a quick eighteen, a party of five can head to Bennigan's without fear of mangling their Big Berthas.

You can have any engine you like as long as it's a 3.0-liter Duratec V6Shoppers contemplating abandoning their soft-roaders will also appreciate the high hip-points afforded by the Five-Hundred's chairs…err… seats. Designed to accommodate middle-America's excess poundage, they work in tandem with good sight lines to foster excellent visibility. When the tarmac gets twisty, they're about as supportive as a bowl of Jell-O.

The Five Hundred comes with your choice of Ford's evergreen 3.0L Duratec V6 or… another car. With just over two hundred ponies providing propulsion for a relatively large machine, the Five Hundred is just this side of slow. Seat-of-the-pants impressions indicate a duel for that last spot in front of Perkins with a pensioner's Toyota Avalon would be a dead heat. Taking on a young squire in his Hemi-fortified 300C would mean missing out on the early-bird special, whilst creating an unfortunate racket.

   We drove this AWD Ford Five Hundred up a dusty old hill just to prove a point... of some kind.Given a length of undulating tarmac, our front-drive SE tester (a Haldex-sourced AWD system is optional) eschewed much of the Flipper-aping body motions that undo the Blue Oval's other big car offering, the Quee….err… Crown Victoria. Predictably, plenty of safety-first understeer is dialed-in when approaching the car's cornering limits, putting the clamps on enthusiastic driving. Absolute limits are higher than expected, but the Five Hundred fails to make such exploits feel like anything more than an inconvenience.

On the highway, where its ponderous feeling controls and over-servoed brakes aren't as intrusive, the Five Hundred finally finds its true métier. The sedan dispatches long stretches of road with the hush n' plush experience of a 1970's Yank-tank.

If this all begins to sound a bit like damning with faint praise, then we're looking at the same menu. That doesn't necessarily make Ford's latest the wrong choice, mind. With a FWD or AWD drivetrain, the Five Hundred should do well with snow-belters fearing the 300's rear-wheel-drive layout in inclement weather. Of course, Daimler-Chrysler's mobster-mobile will shortly offer power at all fours, which will negate any such advantage, but the 300 will still cost more than the Fiver.

Fortunately for Ford, it isn't as if best-selling sedans normally trade on emotional appeal. From Toyota's Camry to Chevy's insipid Impala, the segment's underlying M.O. has been prepackaged painless ownership– the road-going equivalent of Ireland's culinary maxim: "When in doubt, add more gray" — the plainer, the better. Provided Ford can nail dealer conduct, resale value, etc., the Five Hundred will sell well. But drivers who haven't reconciled themselves to motorized mediocrity are advised to dine elsewhere.

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