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Every year auto companies unveil new features on minivans attempting to one-up the competition. When Chrysler came out with a sliding side door on the driver's side it caught everyone by surprise, including Ford, which had to make do with an enlarged driver's door until last year when the newest version of the Windstar finally got a second sliding door.
This year it's Ford's turn to be first: The Windstar is the first minivan to feature power-adjustable pedals. Short and tall drivers should be able to adjust the seats and pedals for the safest, most comfortable driving position.
A neat entertainment center is also available as an option (though Oldsmobile was the first with that one last year). In the area of safety though, Windstar still rates at the top of government crash tests with a five-star rating.
Ford sells very few Windstars with the base 3.0-liter engine. It saves less than $1000 on the purchase price and uses only slightly less fuel than the larger 3.8-liter V6, which offers much better performance.
The 3.8-liter engine produces 200 horsepower, which makes the Windstar one of the quickest minivans available. If you want a satisfying driving experience opt for the bigger engine. It's amazing when one realizes that the acceleration of the Windstar with the 3.8-liter engine is the same as that of a hot sports sedan 15 years ago. Even with a full load of passengers the Windstar has enough power to allow for safe passing.
At times the transmission shifts a little abruptly but otherwise the Windstar's power train performs smoothly. It is a little raucous at high revs, however. 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) and bigger wheels (16-inch), which helps improve handling and stability substantially. Yet this package adds very little noise or ride harshness.
One unique option offered for the first time on a minivan is the reverse sensing system. A beeper sounds at an increasing pace when backing up toward a solid object such as a wall or a child on a bicycle. This beeper might make drivers feel like they are driving a big rig but it is a useful option in a vehicle of this size. Rearward visibility is limited and distance is difficult to judge because the back of the vehicle is such a long way from the driver. We find the reverse sensing system of benefit even when parallel parking on tight streets.
Ford has continued to improve the Windstar, although there was not a lot wrong with the previous model except for the lack of a second sliding door. While adding the second door Ford has taken the opportunity to improve the vehicle in several areas especially safety and even emissions. For example, side airbags are available as an option for the first time.
Those who purchase the top-of-the-line model and add optional features such as side airbags and the reverse warning system can end up with one of the most versatile and safest 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.