Comfy in Gray Flannel

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At last, Ford offers two new family vehicles to succeed the fading Taurus.

It's been nearly two decades since Ford Motor made a big splash in the midsize sedan and wagon market with the original Ford Taurus, a car that bucked the conventions of its day with rounded, "aero" styling. The Taurus was America's bestselling car in the early 1990s.

But that was then. Now the main customers for the aging successor to the original Taurus are rental car companies and other fleet buyers. A decade later than it should have, Ford is trying to reconnect with families who want something other than a pickup or an SUV. For a successor to the Taurus, Ford has turned to Sweden and its Volvo Cars subsidiary for the underpinnings of a new line of mainstream Ford cars. In effect, the new Ford Five Hundred sedan and Ford Freestyle wagon are the workingman's Volvos. They share significant technical elements with Volvo vehicles such as the XC90 crossover SUV and S60 sedan, but are priced below $30,000.

Like Volvos of old, the new Fords are cars for the head, not the heart. They are designed to appeal to consumers who value function over form and understated efficiency over speed and flash. On those terms, the Five Hundred and Freestyle are successful, despite certain shortcomings in power and style.

The Five Hundred and the Freestyle share the same 3.0-liter V-6, an aging engine Ford updated to get 203 horsepower. Even Ford engineers and marketers acknowledge that the engine is a potential liability in the showroom, as several competing midpriced sedans and crossovers offer more standard power.

To compensate, Ford is offering new, advanced transmissions designed to deliver smoother highway performance and more oomph from a standing start. A continuously variable transmission is standard on the Freestyle and on all-wheel-drive versions of the Five Hundred. Front-drive versions of the Five Hundred come with either the continuously variable transmission or a new six-speed automatic.

On the road, the combination of the new transmissions and the old engine feels responsive and adequate to the demands of family-car driving. Both vehicles handle bumps and sharp turns competently and predictably.

Ford Five Hundred
The most dramatic feature of the Ford Five Hundred is its trunk. Because the sedan is based on a crossover SUV with a big well in the rear of the floor to hold fold-down third-row rear seats, the Five Hundred has a cavernous cargo hold. The trunk is capable of swallowing up eight golf bags.

Moreover, by folding down the Five Hundred's rear seats and front passenger seat, it's possible to carry surprisingly long objects. Ford marketers fit a grandfather clock inside a Five Hundred for a brochure photograph.

Crossover-SUV influence goes beyond cargo space. Ford engineers positioned the front-row seats of the Five Hundred and Freestyle about 4 inches higher than in traditional midsize cars, to give drivers some of the same feel of "command" that they get overlooking the road from the seat of an SUV. Ford has trademarked the term "command seating." The Five Hundred's side mirrors are big, like an SUV's. Ford offers the sedan with an all-wheel-drive system as a stand-alone option for $1,700. It wants to position the Five Hundred as a sedan for former SUV owners and as a bargain compared with other midsize sedans with all-wheel drive.

The least expensive Five Hundred sedan starts at $22,795 including destination charge. Add the all-wheel-drive option and you can, in theory, get a roomy all-wheel-drive sedan for under $25,000. Most Five Hundred all-wheel-drive models will go out the door for more than that, of course. A top-of-the-line Limited model starts at $26,795.

This is roughly competitive with, say, a Subaru Legacy GT sedan. But to compete with domestic two-wheel-drive sedans such as the Chevrolet Impala, Ford may have to offer rebates.

Ford Freestyle
Ford has positioned the Freestyle as a separate model, competing in the crossover-wagon segment with vehicles like the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Chrysler Pacifica. The Freestyle has some specific SUV-ish styling cues, such as a grab handle on the passenger side of the dashboard and heater vents similar to those used on Ford SUVs. But the basic layout of the dashboard and interior is simple, logical and virtually the same in both the Freestyle and the Five Hundred, down to a storage cubby in the top of the dashboard above the heater vents.

Like the Five Hundred, the Freestyle wagon lacks sheet-metal pizzazz. From a few feet away, it looks like a supersize Subaru wagon. But the Freestyle is practical on the inside, with 22 cubic feet of cargo room behind its third-row seats, more than the much larger Ford Explorer or the Chrysler Pacifica. The Freestyle offers 2.8 inches more leg room for second-row passengers than a Honda Pilot, and an adult can fit into the third row for a short trip without contortions. Fold down the third and second rows in the Freestyle and you get 80 cubic feet of cargo space, or sufficient room for two people of average height to curl up for a nap.

The Freestyle rides and handles like a car, not like a truck-based SUV. To add to the safety equation, Ford is offering optional side-curtain airbags and a rollover sensor, for $595 to $795, depending on the model. The system is designed so the curtain airbags stay deployed for as long as six seconds in the event of a rollover.

Ford is starting the Freestyle at $25,595 including destination charge. A top-of-the-line Freestyle Limited starts at $29,195, featuring such amenities as 18-inch wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, an upgraded sound system and leather seats. All-wheel drive adds another $1,700 to Freestyle models at any trim level. By comparison, the larger, more powerful Honda Pilot starts at $27,615, with all-wheel drive standard.

Ford executives respond to questions about styling, or the lack of it, by noting that the bestselling cars in America are automotive gray flannel suits like the Accord and Camry. Ford has a long way to go to match the quality reputation that sells Accords and Camrys. Still, the Five Hundred and Freestyle are spacious, versatile, unpretentious vehicles. They're worth a look, particularly for families whose priorities are tuition payments or retirement savings, not impressing the neighbors.