Capsule Review: 2006 Ford Five Hundred SEL CVT

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
capsule review 2006 ford five hundred sel cvt

As Arthur Dent once said, “I seem to be having this tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle.” Unless something bizarre happens at the dealership where it is being Audi CPO Certified, my infamous Lime Green S5 is sold as of last week. This means that I am down to — ugh! — Porsches for transportation. My 944 is locked in a garage and requires heroic measures to start. My 993 has rear tires so bald the tread pattern isn’t even visible any more, and the new Goodyears seem long in arriving. My Boxster seats two.

Therefore, when I had the chance to squire a couple of female friends around an amusement park this past weekend, I found myself unable to offer them a ride in any of my whips, yo. “Not a problem,” the younger one said, “we can take my Ford. It has 116,000 miles but it runs great.” Beggars can’t be choosers, so I agreed. Imagine my surprise when she arrived in said high-mile Blue Oval… and it’s a four-year-old Five Hundred! With the oft-derided CVT! “You’re the race driver,” she said, “so you have to drive.” Off we go!

I believe I’ve already stated my preference for the 3.5 Duratec/six-speed auto combination found in the facelifted “Taurus” variant of this car, but the earlier “Five Hundred” has a few things going for it on the used-car market. To begin with, it’s inoffensively stylish from all angles, hiding its considerable size and unusual proportions behind Passat-plus lines.

Some would disagree, but to my eyes the mid-cycle refresh to the Taurus badge was pretty much all bad news from an aesthetic standpoint. I also think, although I can’t prove it, that Ford cut a little cost out of the plastics in the later cars. The seats in the Five Hundred SEL I drove also seem comfier than the seats in the later Sable, an opinion shared by the other passenger in the car who had also been to New York with me in said Sable a few months ago.

Once you understand that it’s a CVT-equipped car, you can take advantage of that and simply hold throttle position to accelerate. The transmission will ratio-change you up the speedo at a leisurely pace while the rev counter sits unmoving at the 2K mark. This isn’t a particularly quiet car on the freeway mechanically but there’s almost no aero noise and the ride is top-notch. This is one of the most spacious family cars money can buy. The trunk swallowed everybody’s luggage and enough vodka to supply a company of Russian infantry.

It had never occurred to me that the Ford CVT could possibly last over 100K miles but a brief read of the owner forums confirms that honoring the 60K fluid change interval results in a very bulletproof driveline. Nor did the rest of the car betray the mileage; from the lightly worn seats and leather steering wheel to the alert way the Five Hundred tracked down two-lane roads, this felt like a nearly new vehicle. Only the paint, which had been nicked, dinged, scratched, and scuffed dozens of times across every panel, betrayed hard usage.

This being a pre-2008 model, there was no evidence of Ford’s current mastery of automotive info-entertain-omatics. A small two-line green LED display between the speedo and tach informed me that we were averaging twenty-seven miles per gallon during the trip, but if any of us had been seized by the desire to listen to an iPod, it would have been necessary to don headphones.

I noticed that the left pedal was a little soft, and I know from experience that D3-platform Fords simply munch brakes. If you can get 30,000 miles out of a set of front or rear pads on a Five Hundred, Freestyle, or Flex, you must be following the Neon racer’s philosophy of using any available Miata bumper ahead of you to slow the car. Oh well. If you want a car that doesn’t consume its consumables, buy an Accord. I hear you don’t even need to put gas in them.

Fifty miles out of sunny Powell, Ohio, we ran across a monster of a summer thunderstorm, blowing hard enough to make U-Haul drivers pull over and raining with such fury that traffic slowed to forty miles per hour. The big Ford required no such candy-assedness and I found myself slaloming through hazard-flashing Camrys and Grand Cherokees at a pretty good clip. Steering feel was perfectly acceptable. The Five Hundred could use a little more roll stiffness but it’s miles better than any Panther-platform car at maintaining foul-weather stability.

The rain never truly let up, which meant that we had to wait until the next morning to express our inner children at the amusement park. One of the perks of having a horribly scarred leg is that the kids working the rides won’t push the bar down on me, especially when I feign massive agony from their attempts to do so. I’m then free to leave the restraints loose and stand up on the Diamondback as it reaches eighty miles per hour down the hill. Top-notch fun.

Sunday afternoon and we are rolling along Interstate 71. “How do you like my Ford?” the owner asks. I think it’s a wonderful car, particularly for the ten grand or so these things fetch on eBay, and I’m pleased to communicate that opinion. Girl #2 is even more forthright. “This thing is soooooo much better than the Porsches, it’s even comfier than the Audi. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the Porsches are super-cute, but I really wish you had something like this too.”

I’d have been miffed at this had I not been already thinking along the same lines. They don’t know it, but I’ve just struck a couple of deals to put not one, but two authentic slices of full-size American iron in the driveway. I’ve looked at a lot of potential replacements for my S5, from the CTS-V Sportwagon to the Chrysler 300C SRT-8, but I think my next ride has a Blue Oval on it. Well, it has a Blue Oval in the engine bay, anyway.

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3 of 66 comments
  • Cdnsfan27 Cdnsfan27 on Aug 17, 2010

    The Freestyle has an undeserved reputation for being underpowered....underpowered compared to Audi S5...maybe...compared to other CUV's in its weight! I just returned from a round trip between Tampa and Jacksonville averaging 80 MPH and 25 MPG. I had no problems passing when I needed to. As for the longevity of its CVT, mine has 83K and is running smoothly. Opinions are divided on scheduled maintenance on the CVT. The guide states 60K while Ford has a service bulletin out stating no maintenance until 100k. I was told by my mechanic that the less you open it up, the longer it will last. So I am waiting. All in all the Freestyle has been a great family vehicle.

  • Johnster Johnster on Aug 19, 2010

    O.K., I've been away for a couple of days, but then I return to find a post that starts with a quote from Arthur Dent and find that none of the Best and the Brightest have have been able to respond with some Vogon poetry or a quote from Zaphod Beeblebrox or Ford Five Hundred. I mean Ford Taurus. No, I mean Ford Prefect. Well, anyway, this is just sad. You're slipping, B & B. How about the time Ford asked, "Didn't you think it was strange I was trying to shake hands with a car? I thought cars were the dominant lifeform. I was trying to introduce myself."

    • JeremyR JeremyR on Aug 19, 2010

      While I enjoyed the Hitchhiker's Guide series, I always thought that part was dumb. Are we the only planet that has vehicles?

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