Does anyone make an honest cup of coffee anymore? Or is the only option a $3 cup of "venti"?

How about a down-to-earth family car?

You know, one that is solid and unpretentious -- a safe, comfortable, well-equipped large sedan. With ample passenger and trunk space -- and a Middle America price tag. The kind of big four door cruiser that used to be everywhere -- before minivans took over the family transportation market and sedans went either the hard-riding/tight-fitting "sport" or high-dollar "luxury" route -- with a few old men's starter caskets left over for the Bob Dole set.

How about the Ford Five Hundred?

This new five-passenger sedan from Ford may be the best real-deal family car an American automaker has built in decades -- at least since the '80s-era Taurus that was once a common sight in American driveways. Like that car, the Five Hundred has plenty of room (including a huge "three body" 21.2 cubic foot trunk) "sensible shoes" good looks -- and a family-friendly starting price of just $22,230 for the front-drive SE.

But unlike the old Taurus -- and pretty much unlike any other car in its size/price range -- the Five Hundred also offers an all-wheel-drive system. This feature is not offered in other large sedans like the Toyota Avalon (base price $26,625) or Chevy Impala ($21, 330). This gives the Ford a strong selling point over those cars -- and specifically, makes it a viable alternative to an SUV.

The Chrysler 300 does offer AWD, but it's smaller on the inside (especially the back seat area) and a lot more expensive -- $29,625 for the AWD-equipped Touring version with the V-6 engine.

And here's something that's pretty interesting: The Five Hundred actually has more back-seat legroom (41.3 inches vs. 39.6 inches) than the six-passenger Crown Victoria sedan -- the largest car on the road this side of the $64,900 (to start) Mercedes-Benz S-Class. In fact, the Five Hundred actually offers almost six inches more back-seat legroom (41.3 inches vs. 35.6 inches) than the top-of-the-line Mercedes "full-size" sedan -- and exactly the same front-seat legroom (41.3 inches).

Ford is offering a lot of car for the money here.

Literally

In addition to its basic bigness, passenger comfort has been attended to in other ways as well. Adjustable pedals that can be raised or lowered to accommodate drivers of varying sizes and statures are available. And "command" seating is standard -- so you don't feel towered over by hulking SUVs. The 60/40 rear seats have a pass-through to the trunk -- and with the passenger side front seat folded flat, it's possible to cart home something nearly 10 feet long if you have to.

Plenty of cup holders, too (eight, all told)

The Five Hundred is also exceptionally safe -- an important consideration in a family car. In NHTSA and IIHS crash testing, the Five Hundred earned the highest possible 5-Star ratings in both frontal and side-impact tests. Traction control and ABS with Brake Assist are standard; side and curtain (head and torso) air bags are available.

In addition to being a well-designed family car, the Five Hundred also solidly well-equipped. Even base SEs come with 17-inch alloy wheels, six-way power driver's seat, AC, cruise, CD-playing stereo and power windows/locks. You may want more -- but you don't need to spend more to get the basic "gotta haves."

But if you like, you can step up to the mid-trim SEL and get an eight-way power driver's seat, leather and wood trim, dual-zone climate control, an upgraded stereo with MP3-player -- and still be under $25K.

Toss in AWD -- and you've just barely crested $26K ($26,080) which is still less than the base price of the FWD-only Toyota Avalon. In fact, you can buy a top-of-the-line Five Hundred Limited with AWD, 18-inch wheels, heated eight-way leather seats, an even better audio system -- and you're still only looking at $28,230. That's about $1,400 less than the Chrysler 300 Touring with AWD.

Put the extra coin in your pocket -- or use it to buy available goodies like the optional GPS navigation system with touch screen display, an electric sunroof or the family DVD entertainment system.

The one thing some reviewers have faulted the Five Hundred for is the supposed sluggishness of its standard 3-liter, 203-hp V-6 engine -- which does appear to have substantially less "on paper" power than some competitors, such as the 250-hp Chrysler 300 Touring. But check the figures that matter -- such as 0-60 times -- and you'll find the Five Hundred is only about 3-4 tenths of a second slower (about 8.4-8.5 seconds to 60 mph vs. 8-8.1 for the Chrysler).

That kind of dragstrip hair-splitting may be important in a sports car vs. sports car (or sport sedan vs. sport sedan) contest. But the Five Hundred's a family car -- not a hot rod. If the extra half a second (or less) is more important to you than the extra room -- and better overall value -- maybe you don't really want a family car after all.

In any event, the Five Hundred isn't "slow" -- and that's all that's the relevant consideration for a vehicle of this type.

Any car that can make it to 60 mph in the mid-8 second range has enough of a margin to merge comfortably with traffic and pull quickly into busy intersections. The Five Hundred can do that without wheezing or scaring you; try it yourself and see. More importantly, it can flirt with 30 mpg on the highway -- something you'll come to appreciate if you are at all concerned about how much money you'll be spending on fuel.

I drove my tester much harder than the typical owner is likely to -- pedal-to-the-floor starts, a lot of high-speed driving -- and the tank still read nearly half full with more than 200 miles having clicked by. I thought the fuel gauge wasn't working at first -- because it took 60-something miles before it budged from "full." In comparison, the other car I had that week to test out -- an '06 Subaru Outback -- slurped down two-thirds of its (smaller) tank after about 180-something miles of driving.

The Five Hundred was designed before last all's gas price spikes -- but it seems to have anticipated a world of more expensive fuel. Its smaller, more efficient V-6 offers a better balance of performance and economy (again, for a family car) than any of its competitors.

Ford offers buyers their choice of either a six-speed automatic (another rarity in this segment) or a Continuously Variable automatic transmission (CVT). Both transmissions make the best possible use of the V-6's available power, keeping the engine in its powerband (or the right gear) for whatever the situation might be. Together, they are smooth, quiet -- and don't suck your wallet dry.

Again, the coin you save here can be put to better purposes -- whether it's the kids' PlayStation or maybe a new set of golf clubs for you.

Bottom line: The combination of size, affordability -- and available all-wheel-drive -- makes the Five Hundred a standout in its segment. There simply isn't another large sedan like it, with similar equipment, that can be bought for around $24K.


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