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.
The 2000 Windstar's overall appearance has not changed much since it was first introduced in 1995, but it still looks contemporary. Windstar appears a little over-bodied. When bigger fender flares were added the track was not increased so the wheels do not fill them as well as before -- even with the bigger tires on the SEL. The SEL boasts a chrome-plated grille that gives it a more luxurious look.
Ford and Mazda have adopted Chrysler's design for sliding doors by neatly hiding the runners along the lower edge of the rear side window instead of being gouged out of the body side panel. This gives the Windstar a less utilitarian, more upscale look. The second sliding door is an option on the LX Windstar, but comes standard on the SE and SEL models. Power operation of both doors comes standard on the SEL version and is optional on the other models.
Power-operated doors allow opening the doors by the remote key fob from a distance, which is a real benefit when you've got an armload and it's raining. It's also nice for those who find opening and closing the doors a bit strenuous. The one shortcoming is that they move more slowly than manually operated doors which can be closed in literally no time at all. It takes a few seconds for the electric motor to close the doors. Kids love the power doors. A safety feature automatically stops the doors from closing if any object, such as a child's leg, is encountered as they close.
The Windstar is available in one length. It is among the largest of the minivans, and is directly comparable to the Dodge Grand Caravan, the Chrysler Town & Country, and the Honda Odyssey. Windstar's total interior volume with seats removed is nearly identical to these big minivans.
Starting at the front, the Windstar has a nicely designed and substantial dashboard that wraps around the driver. This positions the radio and climate controls within easy reach. Two cupholders are attached to a tray that slides out; spring-loaded sides allow them to accommodate a variety of drinking containers.
A convenient overhead console provides storage for sunglasses, coins and a remote garage-door opener. A wide-angle mirror can be used to keep an eye on what's going on in the rear seats. Another unique option is a small voice recorder attached to the sun visor above the driver. It can be used to quickly record notes and other ideas that might come to mind while driving.
Ford borrowed the adjustable pedals from its big Expedition sport-utility vehicle and they are just as useful in the Windstar. At the touch of a button, a driver with short legs can move the pedals nearer to the seat. This allows the driver to sit farther from the steering wheel, which not only improves control but also lessens the potential for injury from the airbag going off in an accident.
The SEL we tested came with a center console on the floor between the two front seats. In many ways this is inconvenient as it makes it difficult for adults to walk back to the rear of the vehicle. Of course it doesn't upset kids as they just clamber over it. Fortunately it is optional on all models.
New for 2000 is an entertainment center, which fits between the front seats and features a pop-up LCD TV screen, VHS tape player and ports for video games. This $1295 option could prove a godsend for long trips with the kids. It includes a pair of headphones so the driver and front-seat passenger do not have to listen to whatever movie is playing in the rear cabin.
The center row is available as a pair of bucket seats or a bench seat that can be positioned on the left or right depending on which door one wants to use for access to the third row. The third row is the usual bench seat for three people. It now comes with small rollers that make it slightly easier to remove. It still weighs in at about 100 pounds, which makes it a two-person job for removal. It is fixed to a track so it can be moved up to seven inches giving more rear luggage space or rear seat legroom depending on ones needs for the day. It can also be fixed in the same attachment points in place of the second row of seats if five seats and lots of cargo space are needed.
Needless to say, the seat backs fold down to provide a flat space with tables and more cupholders. Rear climate controls are available as an option as well as radio controls for separate rear use of the cassette while the front is switched to the radio. Kids will love the spacious feel throughout the Windstar while adults will appreciate the generous leg- and headroom, especially in the center two bucket seats. Access to the rearmost seats is not as easy with the second sliding door unless the center seat is moved to one side, which precludes access from that side.
Overall, the Windstar is the ultimate family vehicle offering maximum versatility. The addition of the second sliding door actually provides slightly more interior space but loses a storage pocket.
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.
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