New Car Review: 2004 Ford Freestar Limited


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
2004 Ford Freestar Limited

If, at a quick glance, Ford's new Freestar minivan looks like a twin of last year's Windstar, look more closely. It is more than merely an updated Windstar.
Hundreds of changes to its chassis, drivetrain, interior, and safety systems were enough to merit its new name. The Freestar is actually the third generation of Ford minivan, preceded by the rear-wheel drive Aerostar back in the 1980s and the front-drive Windstar in mid-1994. The Windstar was among the most car-like minivans when it debuted, but there have been major changes in the class since then.
The Freestar brings Ford back toward the front of the minivan pack. With five different models - S, SE, SES, SEL, and Limited - Ford has the entire minivan field covered, from the basics with the S through the luxury of the Limited. Although the chassis layout is broadly similar to the Windstar's, the Freestar is heavily revised and designed to meet tougher safety standards. New, larger engines are more powerful than the 3.8-liter V6 found in the Windstar, and have a ULEV emissions rating.
A recent week with a Freestar Limited showed it to be a completely contemporary minivan with plenty of the comfort and convenience features that make a vehicle luxurious. It's equally at home carrying kids and stuff around town, or on the open highway. The minivan fills the niche once taken by the full-sized station wagon, but with even more room, and the Freestar makes a fine family hauler.

APPEARANCE: Like its predecessor, the Windstar, the Freestar is at the conservative end of the minivan styling spectrum. It's a standard one-and-a-half box design with rounded contours balanced by a strong belt line and slightly flared fenders, and all dimensions are within fractions of an inch of those of the Windstar. Details between the two differ, however, and none of the sheetmetal, however similar, is shared. A restyled front end, with a new hood and fenders, larger headlights, and a larger, Explorer-inspired grille is the most noticeable change. S and SE models have a monochrome look, the SES gets a black grille and lower trim for a sporty look, and the SEL and Limited chrome grilles and trim. The Limited also has a two-tone paint scheme.

COMFORT: Change is more noticeable inside the new Freestar than outside. Styling is fresher, in a conservatively upscale way - think top-level Taurus and you'll be close in styling and appointment. In Limited trim almost all of the current state-of-the-minivan goodies are offered as standard or optional equipment. Standard power sliding doors ease access in and out; look for an available power liftgate later in the model year. And, yes, a DVD-based rear-seat entertainment system is offered. But space and convenience are the watchwords for minivans, and the Freestar scores high in both. It's configured for seven, with captain's chairs (leather-covered in the Limited) for the first two rows and a trick third-row bench that not only folds flat when not needed for passenger duty, but can also be tipped backward so it faces out the tailgate. Ford calls it the ``Tailgate Bench Seat''(tm) and it's a great idea for picnics and tailgate parties. The Limited's comfy front seats are power-adjustable, and the fold and tumble second-row seats recline up to sixty degrees and can be removed for serious cargo carrying. A large storage console that fits between the front seats is available. The tradeoff is storage versus access, for without it, access to the rear rows from the front is a snap. And a convex auxiliary mirror in the standard ceiling console allows the driver to keep an eye on rear passengers - keep sibling rivalry in check! There is plenty of storage space even without the console, on top of the instrument panel, in the center stack, in the overhead console, and in the doors - even the sliding doors - and atop the rear wheel wells. The rear-seat passengers are not forgotten. You can't have a minivan without cupholders, and there is no shortage in the Freestar.

SAFETY: Safety is a major consideration for minivan buyers, and the Freestar has been designed with that in mind. The Windstar earned a five-star rating for the past five years, and the Freestar continues that streak with a five star rating for the driver and front passenger in NHTSA tests and a ``best pick'' rating in frontal crash testing by the IIHS. Its structure is designed for occupant safety, especially in offset frontal crashes. Four-wheel antilock vented disc brakes with electronic brake distribution are standard on all models, with the ``AdvanceTrac''(tm) stability enhancement system and a sonar-based reverse object-sensing system available. Brake assist is included with that package. The available ``Safety Canopy'' (tm) airbags deploy from the headliner during a side impact or rollover and cover most of the side glass area to protect occupants in all three rows.

ROADABILITY: The extra rigidity built into the Freestar's chassis helps keep it quiet on the road, and provides a solid base for the suspension, which uses MacPherson struts in front and a twist-beam rear axle. It feel much like a large wagon. Soft springs and shocks give a traditional American ride, but damping is good so road irregularities are dealt with and immediately forgotten. At 4400 lbs and with a higher center of gravity than a car, it won't be confused with a Mustang in the handling department - but a Mustang won't carry seven people and many cubic feet of cargo.

PERFORMANCE: All Freestar models have more power than the old Windstar. Although the basic engine specification is the same as in the Windstar - an iron-block transversely-mounted V6 with 12 pushrod-operated valves, there are now two engine choices, and both are larger than the old 3.8 liters. A 3.9-liter version is standard in lesser models, but the SEL or Limited's engine displaces 4.2 liters, which makes it one of the largest engines in the minivan class. Size matters for torque, and a class-leading 263 lb-ft of torque and 201 horsepower give good acceleration in traffic and effortless highway cruising. The engine's good low- and mid-range power means that it works well with the four-speed automatic transmission, which has been upgraded for smoother, faster shifting.

CONCLUSIONS: The Freestar updates Ford's entry in the minivan class.

SPECIFICATIONS
2004 Ford Freestar Limited

Base Price $ 33,090
Price As Tested $ 35,705
Engine Type pushrod overhead valve 12-valve V6
Engine Size 4.2 liters / 253 cu. in.
Horsepower 201 @ 4,250 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 263 @ 3,500 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length 120.8 in. / 201.0 in.
Curb Weight 4,406 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 21.9
Fuel Capacity 26 gal.
Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires P235/60 SR17 Goodyear Integrity (opt)
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, ABS and EBD standard
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / semi-independent twist-beam axle
Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 16 / 22 / 18
0 to 60 mph est. 11 sec
towing capacity 2,000 lbs. (3,500 with towing package)

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
17-inch aluminum wheels $ 245
Side airbags and Safety Canopy $ 695
Active Safety Package II- includes: AdvanceTrac(tm) with panic brake assist and traction control, Reverse Sensing System $ 750

Value Group III - includes: HomeLink, perimeter antitheft $ 240
Destination charge $ 685

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