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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 smooth aerodynamic shape the Windstar started out with in 1995 is still the basis of its look today. Besides the larger front door, the most noticeable change is in the front. The hood has a slightly different contour this year than its former smoothly rounded surface. Slightly raised in the center, it comes forward into a more squarely shaped front end, lending a slightly stronger appearance.
Overall the look is quite stylish, and it disguises the Windstar's substantial size. The shape still slides smoothly over the sloped windshield, so that only the barest wind noise comes from the large outside mirrors.
It's easy to get kids and cargo in and out the passenger doors. In the rear the cargo door is huge, but a door-style handle makes it easy to open and lift. And even though there's lots of walk-under room beneath the hatch, an easy-to-grasp strap helps to haul it down.
Then there's that big new Family door, which has been extended six inches. The back seat can be reached by tipping and sliding the driver's seat forward. (The door is standard on all '98 Windstars, but the tip-slide seat is extra on the less-expensive models, and the door is just a big door without it.)
We found a few problems here. One is just size. Though it's designed to extend only two inches more than previous door, it's enough to be bothersome in a crowded parking lot. Ford points out that most mid-size coupes have doors that are even wider. But they're not nearly as tall, or as high off the ground.
A package can be easily put in the back by just tipping the seat and not sliding it forward. But for anything bigger you have to get out, move your seat, put it back and get in. It's easier just to use the sliding door.
Inside is where the Windstar shines. It's roomy and comfortable, with plenty of access to the middle and rear seat rows. The uniquely stylish dashboard curves around the driver, so smaller drivers don't have to stretch and lunge for the controls.
The instruments are classic white-on-black analog, with a tachometer on the left, a big speedometer in the middle, and small temperature and fuel gauges on the right, plus the usual array of warning lights. Headlights are controlled by a rotary switch on the left side of the dash. Wiper controls are on a stalk on the left of the steering wheel column. The parking brake is set with a handle to the right of the driver's seat.
Controls for the power windows and locks are on the door, and cruise control switches are on the steering wheel hub, where you can operate them with your thumbs.
Three big dials to the right of the instrument panel work the heater and air conditioner. They really couldn't be simpler or more convenient.
The same can't be said for the AM/FM/cassette player just above those dials. It's all buttons, and many of the buttons are pretty small. Even adjusting the volume requires the driver to look away from the road.
Cupholders, which pop out under the heater, are now adjustable, so they can hold even the fattest coffee mug. There are tons of cup holders for back seat passengers that can hold a can or a juice box, and large storage bins in both the middle and rear seat rows.
The seatbelts are height-adjustable in both front and rear.
A useful new feature is the optional overhead console. It includes a change holder, a little home for those ever-elusive sunglasses, and a holder for a garage remote control. Best of all, it has a cool convex mirror that pops down so you can view the back seats and see who is really tormenting whom when you're trying to drive.
The seats are comfortable enough for trips of any duration. The arms rests fold down to help you relax and fold up and out of the way when you have to arbitrate a family dispute in the back.
The third seat rests on rails. Push it all the way back for maximum leg room. Push it seven inches forward to create more cargo room. The second and third row seat backs fold down to put stuff on top, or you can unlatch them and take them out altogether. Do that and 4x8 sheets of plywood will fit flat on the floor.
Ford put a power lock switch on the side of the cargo hold, just inside the rear hatch. So even without remote entry, you can pull something out, lock all the doors and head into the house.
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.
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