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There's a real struggle going on for supremacy in the minivan world, a battle being fought largely between Ford and Chrysler, with GM currently bringing up the rear. With each new model year, the opponents exert themselves to the utmost to increase performance, comfort, style and utility value without driving prices beyond competitive levels.
Chrysler was the first to stake a claim in this field with its 1984 entries. Ford responded with the rear-drive Aerostar a year later, then followed up with the Windstar in 1994. A redesigned Chrysler lineup--Chrysler Town & Country, Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan--made their debut last year. GM answered Ford's Aerostar with the rear-drive Chevy Astro and GMC Safari, then introduced the front-drive Chevy APV, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette.
Import nameplates competing in this arena include the Mazda MPV, Toyota Previa, Nissan Quest--a clone of the Mercury Villager--and the new Honda Odyssey.
Lots of choices.
In general, the domestic offerings are large minivans, offering more cargo space and spread-out room than the imports while being easier to drive and more maneuverable than full-size vans. Last year, Windstar was the cream of the crop. This year, it faces stronger rivals. Does it still match up?
The best tribute to Windstar's appearance may well be the remarkable similarity between it and the latest Chrysler minivans. This is less a matter of plagiarism than common sense; it would be difficult to make a shape that combines packaging efficiency and aerodynamics so well look much different.
The rounded nose, sloping windshield and flush window glass all do their part to help Windstar cut cleanly through the air, to the benefit of both fuel economy and interior noise reduction. The sculptured flanks contribute too, increasing stiffness while adding a touch of style.
Entry and exit are aided by large doors and a low step-in height; Windstar is far better than a 4-door sedan in this respect. The passenger-side rear sliding door is equally easy to use, and provides plenty of access to the second and third seats. However, the Windstar's one real shortfall compared to the new Chrysler minivans is the absence of a fourth door option. A very high percentage of Chrysler minivan buyers are stepping up to this feature, although a few do have safety concerns. For example, a driver approaching a parked van from behind has no warning of the open door until a passenger pops out of it.
Getting cargo in through the giant rear liftgate is a snap, and there's lots of room to walk around underneath without worrying about whacking your head. There's also a handy pulldown strap to make closure easy, regardless of your personal stature.
The word mini- is something of a misleading prefix when applied to the Windstar. It falls midway between Taurus and Crown Victoria in overall length and width, though its wheelbase is longer than either sedan.
Front-seat occupants will think they're in a passenger car. The look of the dashboard and controls, and the seating positions owe more to sedans than vans, and are the better for it. It's a high-style environment made up of top-quality plastics and fabrics.
Ford's leadership in interior design is especially evident here. The dashboard has a complete array of gauges (speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, coolant temp., oil pressure and voltmeter), plus large soft-touch rotary knobs for lighting and climate control. Window switches are mounted in the door panel armrests; these also have soft-touch surfaces and are large enough to use without fumbling.
The rest of the interior is excellent as well. Amenity content is high: Cupholders are supplied in abundance (two in front, one for the left-side passenger in the center seat, and two in back); there are storage pockets everywhere; and center-seat passengers can have their own controls and headphone jacks for the audio system. The center seats are almost as comfortable as the front buckets, and that's saying a lot. The third seat is tolerable for long distances as well. Second and third seats are removable--by two people, and with some effort--to create a large load space.
That load space is not quite as large as that of a Chrysler minivan, however, even though the latter has slightly smaller exterior dimensions. While the difference will be important mainly to those who need to carry loose ping-pong balls or equally odd cargo, it's an area where the Chrysler designers clearly did a better job.
Windstar is offered in three versions: The basic model is a commercial window van, shorn of all amenities aft of the front seats and rather limited in options.
Next up is the GL, a nicely equipped passenger van that needs only air conditioning to make it suitable for most use. It can be dressed up with numerous options.
Many GL options--including air conditioning--are standard on the luxurious Windstar LX. Aluminum wheels, power mirrors, locks and windows (including powered swing-out rear quarter glass), tilt steering wheel, speed control and an adjustable track for the rearmost seat are only a few of its premium features.
A large variety of options can be added to both GL and LX. Keyless entry, all-speed traction control, leather seats, privacy glass and a rear seat that can fold into a bed are among the individual offerings. Package options include a trailer-towing group that increases towing capacity from 2000 to 3500 lbs. (though rear-wheel drive is a better bet for heavy towing chores), and a digital instrument group that includes gauge cluster, automatic on/off headlights and a self-dimming photochromic mirror.
Another option worth a serious look in hot climates is Ford's high-capacity air conditioning system. With overhead ducts blowing into the rear of the van, as well as the standard dashboard ducting, this unit can take the interior temperature from 100 degrees down to 70 almost as quick as you can say, "Boy, it's really hot out there today."
In ride, handling and performance terms, the Windstar is best described as an oversized Taurus with a slightly higher seating position. That's all to the good; it is smooth, supple, quiet and corners well, with far less body lean than drivers of most vans will encounter. The steering is light, but transmits plenty of road feel. Transitioning from sedan to van is easy here, though the larger turning circle takes some getting used to.
Regardless of model, all Windstars come with antilock braking. In this regard, the trailer-tow package--which includes coolers for the engine, power steering and transmission oil--is worth investigating even if you never plan to hitch up, as it replaces the standard rear drum brakes with discs.
Base (GL) and commercial Windstars use a quiet but somewhat anemic 3.0-liter V6 engine. Driven gently it is acceptable, but a fully-laden vehicle taxes it almost beyond its ability.
The alternative is a 3.8-liter unit (standard in the upmarket LX), reworked this year to deliver 200 hp, which gives the Windstar one indisputable bragging right--the most powerful minivan available. That's enough to provide fine performance with no perceptible loss of economy, though this engine, like every other Ford 3.8 we've tested, isn't as smooth as some and feels slightly strained at high rpm. Both engines are teamed with an excellent 4-speed automatic transmission, and both are sure to give years of trouble-free service.
Once again, the Windstar stands at the head of the large minivan list. Despite increased competition, it still delivers a blend of quality, comfort, performance and style that set it apart from the rest.
Obviously, alternatives exist. A smaller van or sedan may cost less while carrying as big a load as you require, and a bigger rear-drive van can carry more and pull a heavier trailer.
But the Windstar is impressively flexible in capacity, and looks equally at home picking the kids up at school or carrying you to a night on the town.
While deficient in a few areas--there's no driver's-side rear door (if that matters to you), rear seat removal is a chore, and the new Chryslers are marginally better when rated on cargo space vs. exterior size--Windstar remains an excellent choice in a very competitive category.