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If the essence of the minivan concept is comfort and driveability with cargo capacity - the theme Chrysler established in 1984 - then Ford's new Windstar is not only right on the money, it's ahead of the game. At least for the moment.
Besides being a little bit bigger than Chrysler's increasingly popular long-wheelbase minivans - the Dodge Grand Caravan and Plymouth Grand Voyager - the Windstar is also a tad more civilized in ride quality, handling, versatility and all-around comfort.
And even though appearance is always a subjective issue, there are those who say it's better looking, too.
This is not to say that Ford has revolutionized the world of minivans. Chrysler has been improving its minivans continuously since 1984, and its line includes a broad range of powertrain options, including all-wheel drive.
But the Windstar does represent a painstaking refinement of everything that made the front-drive minivan such a good idea to begin with. It's quiet, well-appointed, and roomy, and it has excellent road manners, as well as an impressive list of standard safety features.
And with a price range that matches the Chrysler Grands almost dollar for dollar, it's a must-drive for anyone interested in a king-size minivan.
Ford has been an industry leader in aerodynamic design since the creation of the Taurus, and that expertise shows to good advantage in the Windstar. Its sleek shape is not only pleasant to the eye, it's easy on the ears as well - aerodynamic efficiency equals reduced wind noise. The Windstar's combination of flush-mounted glass, flush-mounted wraparound bumpers, flush-mounted halogen headlamps, flush door handles, steeply raked windshield and sloping hoodline all help to make this one of the quietest minivans on the road today.
Good aerodynamics also help with fuel efficiency, and here, too, the Windstar posts impressive numbers. Its optional 3.8-liter V6 engine produces a bit more torque - the commodity that gets you off the line when the light turns green - than anything in the Chrysler powertrain inventory, and its fuel economy ratings are also tops in its class at 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway.
The Windstar's league-leading statistics don't stop with aerodynamics. It also has the lowest front and rear step-in heights in the minivan business, as well as one of the smoothest sliding side doors.
And the rear hatch advances the state of the art. For openers, it features a door-type handle - you don't have to pull it open by using your key as a lever. It also has twin side-latches, rather than a single center-mounted floor latch, which helps keep the hatch closed in rear-end impacts.
When the hatch is fully raised, there's room enough for a 6-footer to walk under without having to crouch. And a convenient pull-down strap makes closures easy, regardless of your height.
Besides being easy to get into and out of, the Windstar provides excellent comfort when you settle in - comfort of the all-day variety. Ford's seating program is among the best in the business, and there's lots of legroom to go with it, particularly up front.
There's also plenty of room overhead, as well as from side to side. Both Windstar trim levels - the standard GL and the ritzier LX - feature standard seating for seven passengers.
The sweeping lines of the Windstar's instrument panel blend well with its aero exterior, flowing smoothly into the door panels for an integrated appearance that's unusually sophisticated in a minivan. Secondary controls - sound system, climate controls - are angled toward the driver, enhancing operation. And the high-mounted climate controls feature rotary knobs that are easy to set, even when you're wearing gloves.
Our LX test van also featured digital electronic instrumentation, plus a trip computer that helps keep track of useful info such as fuel economy, average speed and distance to empty. And of course there was a very nice AM/FM/cassette sound system, with headphone jacks for middle-seat passengers. The plus here is if your kids are into rap, you don't necessarily have to listen in.
The biggest part of the Windstar's inside story is its versatility as a cargo hauler. At the small end of the spectrum, it offers a locking glove box, a storage bin under the front passenger seat, seven cupholders - some of them adapted to accommodate both cups and juice boxes - plus an optional center console with a storage well and a power point for a cellular phone.
For bigger stuff, there's a good-sized space behind the third seat that can be expanded by sliding the seat forward up to 7 in. Both the second- and third-row seatbacks fold forward, something that can't be said for the Chrysler Grands. And if the load is really big, both the second- and third-row seats can be removed, yielding 144 cu. ft. of cargo cavern, a bit bigger than in the Chrysler minivans.
About the only criticism we can offer here is that seat removal is still a two-person job. GM's APV family - the Chevrolet Lumina, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette - still leads the pack on this point.
Thanks to an exceptionally rigid chassis, the Windstar has very good road manners. Straight-line stability is excellent, handling is positive and predictable, and ride quality is as smooth as any minivan going.
It behaves, in fact, very much as you'd expect a good-sized front-drive sedan to behave. Its responses are deliberate without being ponderous, and body roll is remarkably well-controlled for a tall vehicle. And even though a 40.3-ft. turning circle is a little wide for parking lot maneuvers, it's still almost 3 ft. handier than that of the Chryslers.
Another plus is standard anti-lock brakes throughout the Windstar line, as well as standard dual airbags, improved side-impact protection and 5-mph bumpers. Even though the Windstar, like all minivans, is classified by its manufacturer as a truck, it nevertheless meets 1997 federal passenger-car safety standards.
The final strong point is the Windstar's powertrain. Although the rest of the vehicle is all-new, the 3.8-liter V6 (a 3.0-liter V6 is standard in the basic Windstar GL) is a proven quantity, with an excellent service record behind it. Combined with a 4-speed overdrive automatic transmission and the latest generation of Ford's computerized engine management system, it delivers respectable acceleration and near-seamless operation.
All things considered, when you're behind the wheel of a Windstar, it's hard to remember you're towing around all that cargo volume behind you.
With a price range that starts at about $20,000, the Windstar isn't cheap. If you don't really need this much interior volume, you might want to consider a standard-size minivan. An alternative to Chrysler's offerings in this category is the joint-venture Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager.
And if heavy trailer towing is a consideration, a rear-drive minivan is a better bet. The Ford Aerostar and the Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari are good choices.
But if you're in the market for an all-around maxi-mini that can handle the entire spectrum of family hauling chores, the Windstar delivers. More than that, it delivers quietly, efficiently and comfortably.
As with every vehicle category, the battle to be best among minivans never stands still. We're going to see all-new Chrysler minivans in early 1995 that we know will change the game.
But right now, the Windstar holds the high ground.
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