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The popularity of a sliding side door on the driver's side of the Chrysler minivans caught everyone by surprise. Buyers of Ford's Windstar, the closest competitor to Chrysler's trio of big minivans, have had to make do with a large optional driver's door for rear access from the driver's side.
Those days are over. The newest version of the Windstar gets a second sliding door. What's more it's available as a power-operated door. Windstar still rates best in government safety tests and it offers some new features that set it apart from other minivans.
Ford sells few Windstars with the base 3.0-liter engine. Its saves less than $1000 on the purchase price, it uses only slightly less fuel but does not perform nearly as well as the 3.8-liter V6. This engine produces 200 horsepower, which puts it right at the top among minivans as one of the best all round performers. If you want a satisfying driving experience opt for the bigger engine.
The acceleration of the Windstar with the 3.8-liter engine is the same as that of a sports hotrod sedan 15 years ago. Even with a full load of passengers the Windstar has enough power for safe passing. At times the transmission shifts a little abruptly but otherwise the vehicle's powertrain performs smoothly, although it is a little raucous at high revs. Steering is about right with some feedback for those who want to know what's going on. The ride is smooth thanks to the longest wheelbase of any minivan and it is certainly a lot smoother than in any sport-utility vehicle. Likewise the handling, while not as crisp a sedan, is more stable than an SUV.
The SEL model comes with fatter tires (225/60R16) on bigger wheels than any other Windstar models, which helps improve the handling and stability of the vehicle quite substantially while adding very little noise or ride harshness.
One unique option offered for the first time on a minivan is a reverse sensing system. A beeper sounds at an increasing pace when backing up toward a solid object, such as a parked car or a child on a bicycle. It's a useful option on a vehicle of this size; rearward visibility is limited because the back of the vehicle is such a long way from the driver.
Overall the Windstar is designed as the ultimate family vehicle with maximum versatility.
Ford has improved it throughout, though the previous model's only failing was the lack of a second sliding door. While adding the second door, Ford has taken the opportunity to improve safety and emissions. For example, side airbags are available as an option for the first time.
If you can afford to purchase the top-of-the-line model and add optional features such as side airbags and the reverse warning system, you end up with one of the safest, most versatile vehicles on the road. It's almost too good for the kids -- a luxuriously appointed Windstar is more appropriate for taking four to six adults on a long journey or downtown to the opera.