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If you think of minivans as faceless vehicles with fairly interchangeable personalities, then you need to think again. Ford's Windstar is a minivan with a difference, Minivanius maximus, a van outstanding in its field.
Windstar comes standard with a strong, 200-horsepower V6 and room for seven. It offers options aplenty to satisfy any taste. Like most modern minivans, the Windstar offers power sliding rear doors. However, Windstar is the only minivan with available power-adjustable pedals, allowing short and tall drivers to adjust seats and pedals for the safest, most comfortable driving position.
Perhaps most important for a family hauler, Windstar is also the only minivan to earn the Federal government's highest crash-test rating, five stars for the driver and front-passenger, for seven straight years. Now Windstar has also achieved the double five-star rating in the new side-impact tests when equipped with optional side-impact air bags.
With its big V6, the Windstar is one of the quickest minivans available, with acceleration that would have put it in the hot sport-sedan class a generation ago. Even with a full load of passengers the Windstar has enough power for safe passing.
At times the transmission shifts a little abruptly. Otherwise the Windstar's powertrain performs smoothly, although it can sound a little raucous at high rpm.
Steering is about right, with some feedback to let the driver know what's going on. The ride is smooth, thanks to the longest wheelbase of any minivan. Windstar certainly rides more comfortably than any sport-utility vehicle. The suspension feels soft and wallows in corners. Its handling, while not as crisp a sedan's, is more stable than an SUV's. The brakes were unimpressive and the nose dives under hard braking.
SE, SEL and Limited come with fatter tires (215/65R16) and bigger wheels (16-inch), which helps improve handling and stability substantially. Yet this package adds very little noise or ride harshness.
Yet another useful device is the reverse sensing system, which is standard on the Limited and part of a $600 Family Security Group on SE and SEL. Rearward visibility is limited in the Windstar, and distance is difficult to judge because the back of the vehicle is such a long way from the driver. The reverse sensor measures the distance between the van and any object behind it (such as a wall, a parked car, or a child on a bicycle). A beeper sounds at an increasing pace as the van approaches the object. It may seem silly at first, but we really like this feature. We find it helpful when parallel parking on tight streets where it really speeds up the process, good when everyone else is scurrying into the restaurant. It increases safety when backing up in crowded parking lots. It's amazing how often people will walk behind or drive up and stop behind a big vehicle when it's backing up.
Ford has continued to add to the Windstar's already long list of available safety equipment. All models share a five-star crash test rating. Add to that traction and stability control, front-passenger side-impact airbags and the reverse sensing system, and it's easy to see why the Windstar is such a desirable family vehicle. Windstar is safe and roomy, features a versatile seating arrangement, and offers a rear-seat entertainment system. If you've got kids, this minivan should be on your list.
In fact, it's almost too good for the kids. A luxuriously appointed Windstar Limited would be equally appropriate for taking four to six adults on a long journey or downtown to the opera.