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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.
Ford Windstar's styling hasn't changed much since its 1995 introduction, but it still looks contemporary. Windstar's front end received a minor re-design last year. For 2002, LX Standard and Deluxe have acquired driving lights and body-color bumpers.
Ford has adopted Chrysler's design for sliding doors, neatly hiding the runners along the lower edge of the rear side window instead of gouging them out of the body-side panel. This gives the Windstar a less utilitarian, more upscale look. Power operation for the dual sliding doors is optional on the SE, and standard on the SEL and Limited.
With the power-operated doors, you can open up the van by remote control, using a button on the key fob. This can be real benefit when you've got an armload and it's raining. It's also nice for folks who find opening and closing those heavy doors a bit strenuous. The one shortcoming of the power doors is that they move slower than most people could slide the door by hand. Nonetheless, kids love the power doors. A safety feature automatically stops the doors should some errant body part block their path.
Unlike some of its domestic competitors, Windstar is available in one length only. It is among the largest of the minivans, comparable in size 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 that of these big minivans, none of which are mini.
Kids love the spacious feel throughout the Windstar, while adults appreciate the generous legroom and headroom, especially in the center bucket seats. 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 cup holders are attached to a tray that slides out; spring-loaded sides allow them to accommodate a variety of containers.
A convenient wide-angle mirror helps the driver keep an eye on what's going on in the rear seats. Another unique option is Ford's Message Center (part of a $485 Electronics Group) which is a small voice recorder attached to the driver's sun visor. It can be used to record notes and other ideas that might come to mind while driving.
The available tire pressure monitoring system is a good idea. The warning light on ours came on and, sure enough, the right rear tire was about 5 pounds low. (It doesn't tell you which tire is low because it wouldn't know whether you've moved wheels around, so you'll have to check all four tires when you get the light.)
The SEL we tested came with a console on the floor between the two front seats. In many ways this is inconvenient, as it makes it difficult for adults to walk between the seats and into the rear of the vehicle. Of course it doesn't upset the kids, who just clamber over it. Fortunately, LX Base and Standard and SE models don't have it, unless it is ordered as a $155 option.
The front seats are flat with little side bolstering. That makes getting in and out easy, but there's no side support for going around corners. We had trouble getting comfortable.
The available power-adjustable pedals are very useful, moving the pedals closer to the seat at the touch of a button. This is particularly beneficial for drivers' with short legs, who can sit further from the steering wheel, not only for better leverage but to avoid possible injury from the airbag.
The center-row seats are buckets in SE, SEL and Limited. We found the center seats are heavy and awkward to move. LX Standard and Deluxe buyers can choose a center-row bench, or buckets for $745 more. The bench seat can be positioned left or right, for your choice of either curbside or street-side access to the third-row seat. (However, once the seat is shifted to the left, say, third-seat access from that side is awkward.) The bench seat reclines and rolls forward and back, for more versatile cargo loading and easy removal.
The third-row seat is a bench on all models, and has seat belts for three people. Like the second-row bench it rides on small rollers that make it slightly easier to remove. It still weighs about 100 pounds, which makes removal a two-person job. Once back in the van, it moves seven inches fore and aft on its track, allowing more rear luggage space, or more rear-seat legroom, depending on the needs of a particular day. However, moving it all the way forward exposes the seat tracks, which are greasy for cargo and not friendly to dogs. The rear bench can also be moved to the second-row seat's attachment points, to provide seating for five and cavernous luggage space. That feature theoretically adds to the versatility of Windstars equipped with second-row buckets.
The seat backs fold down to provide a flat space revealing table space and more cup holders. All models but LX Base have rear climate controls, and SE, SEL and Limited come with rear audio controls as well, allowing kids to play cassettes in the rear while adults listen to the radio up front.
A handy option (especially if you have children) is the AutoVision Entertainment System ($995 on SE, SEL and Limited), which deploys from the overhead console and features an LCD TV screen, VHS tape player and ports for video games. It's a real boon for long trips: You may never hear "Are we there yet?" again. The system includes a pair of headphones so the driver and front-seat passenger do not have to listen to "Land
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.
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