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In the ever-competitive minivan market, the little differences can make a company's year, or make it miserable. The bigger differences, like the number of doors, can be even more significant. Which is why the Ford Windstar, late to the four-door party, has brought along a surprise guest this year: the Family Door.
It's hard to have any discussion about the 1998 Ford Windstar without someone mentioning That Big Door. Ford's official name is the Family Entry System. Ford insiders call it the More Door. The Windstar still has only three doors--a major disadvantage since Chrysler and General Motors front-wheel-drive minivans all offer an optional sliding door on the driver's side.
When Ford was designing the Windstar, its market research showed that minivan buyers didn't really care about having a fourth door. Wrong. Parents find the fourth door makes getting kids, especially little kids, in and out of the van a lot easier. It is being ordered on something like three out of four Chrysler vans.
The Windstar will offer a fourth door when it's redesigned for 1999, but the big door is the quick fix for 1998. By making the driver's door six inches longer and offering a driver's seat that slides and tips forward, you can now get kids in and out of the back on the left side of the van.
Obviously, one door is simply not the same as two. But that doesn't change our overall impression that the Windstar is a fine minivan.
It remains convenient to use and pleasurable to drive. A star performer in government crash tests, the Windstar also offers plenty of room for big families and lots of stuff.
The Windstar is as quiet, comfortable and easy to operate as any minivan on the road. Even at freeway speeds you can hear people talking to you in the rear seats with no problem.
Two engines are available, and both provide plenty of power. A 3.0-liter V6, standard in GL models, generates 150 hp, pretty typical for a minivan engine. A 3.8-liter V6 that's optional on the GL and standard on LX and Limited models creates 200 hp, tops in any minivan. Both engines can go 100,000 miles between tuneups and the four-speed automatic transmission that comes in all Windstars makes shifting almost unnoticeable.
There's enough pickup to get onto the freeway or pass on two-lane roads without much drama, and stoplight getaway is good enough to leave many compact cars behind if you try.
We also found that the Windstar performed well in winter weather, even without the optional traction control.
The Windstar is probably the safest minivan going. Dual airbags, 5 mph bumpers and ABS are standard on all models. There's a child-proof lock on the sliding door and head restraints have been added to the second and third row seats. Perhaps most important, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given the Windstar a five-star rating for protecting its occupants in a head-on collision.
If family vacations are a top priority, then Windstar should probably be at the top of your list. It is probably the best touring minivan around. That's especially true if you really don't want that fourth door.
No, they are not cheap. Our GL test van stickered out at $25,300 including the 3.8-liter engine. On the other hand, a lot of folks do want a fourth door and we suspect the Family door isn't going to satisfy many of them.
Which means that you can probably get a pretty good deal on a 1998 Windstar.