The Ford Freestar is a solid, highly capable minivan that performs well and offers all the latest safety features. Though introduced as a new minivan with a new name for 2004, much of the Freestar's structure and design came from the Windstar it replaced. Windstar offered class-leading safety and solid performance for its time. But while the improvements that inspired the name change moved Ford's minivan closer to its competitors, they did not leapfrog it ahead of them. Ford says the Freestar is the highest quality minivan it has ever built. That contention is backed up by the J.D. Power and Associates research firm, which found Freestar's overall quality and mechanical quality better than most.
Freestar is quite capable. It can haul seven passengers or four passengers and a heck of a lot of stuff. Freestar's third-row seat disappears into the floor when not needed, leaving a big, flat cargo space and seating for four people. When the third row reappears, it opens up seating for three more and leaves a deep well in back that's perfect for keeping groceries from rolling around. A new Class II towing package boosts trailering capacity to 3,500 pounds, enough to handle personal watercraft, snowmobiles, light boats, motorcycles, small campers and other toys.
Out on the highway, the Freestar is smooth and quiet. It glides over rough pavement. It's easy to drive, with responsive handling and a big, powerful V6 engine. We didn't think the Freestar felt as refined as the best and newest of the minivans, however.
But Freestar's strongest suit is safety: Freestar earned five stars in the government's front-impact crash testing, and was named "Best Pick" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety following rigorous crash testing for the insurance industry. To help drivers avoid crashing in the first place, the Freestar comes standard with anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution. A tire-pressure monitor is standard and self-sealing tires are available. Options further improve the safety of the Freestar: AdvanceTrac electronic stability control helps drivers maintain control when swerving to avoid something or when entering a slippery corner too fast. Ford's Safety Canopy can help protect against head injuries in a rollover or side impact; unlike curtain airbags from other manufacturers that protect people in the first two rows, Ford's system is designed to offer protection to passengers sitting on the outboard sides of the third row as well. Dual-stage driver and front-passenger air bags come standard and are designed to deploy at full or partial power depending on the severity of the crash. Freestar's seat belts use pretensioners and energy-management retractors to improve their effectiveness and reduce the chance of belt-related injuries.
The Ford Freestar is based on the old Windstar, and looks it. The only obvious differences are the hood, grille, headlamps, front fenders, and rear liftgate.
Freestar sticks with traditional, mainstream minivan styling. Freestar does have one odd, distinguishing feature: The front side windows drop below the inside portion of the door trim which, say the Freestar's designers, remains at a comfortable arm-rest height. The SES model offers a sporty new liftgate spoiler for 2005.
All Freestars come with dual sliding side doors with child-proof locks. Power operation, a convenience much appreciated while running through the rain with armloads of groceries, is standard on Limited and available on SEL ($900). A power-folding rear liftgate is also available.
Freestar received a five-star rating in driver and passenger front impact as well as passenger side impact. It received a four-star rating in driver side impact and roll-over resistance.
Freestar's interior looks elegant, with a delicate watch-like clock in the center dashboard as its focal point. Ford spent more money on the Freestar's interior, which represents a dramatic upgrade over the Windstar's.
Storage space is abundant throughout. It includes bins in the sliding doors for books and toys. Front doors have double map pockets, one above the other. On the dash is a covered storage compartment for small items like cell phones. The driver's seat on the Limited model has a kangaroo pouch at the front of the cushion.
The Freestar seats seven passengers: two in front, two in the second row and three in the third row. Standard seating in the second row is a bench. Captain's chairs are also available, and they slide horizontally on rails. They also fold and tumble forward, like those on the Ford Explorer and Expedition, for easy access to the third row, or for extra cargo space.
The third-row seat folds into a well in the floor behind it, creating a flat load platform. Ford's fold-flat seat may well be best-in-class in terms of ease of operation. Pull the clearly numbered straps in sequence, and the seat drops easily into the well. Ford also designed the third-row head restraints to retract into the seat, so you don't have to pull them out before you fold the seat, as you do on other minivans. The third-row bench seat can also be dropped backward to create seating for tailgate parties.
With the third-row seat in place for passengers, there's more than 25 cubic feet of storage space; the well behind the seat provides a good spot to restrain your groceries. (No more melons rolling about the cabin!) Freestar's cargo volume expands to 130 cubic feet when the third-row seat is folded and the second-row seats are removed (possible, but clumsy, for one person).
The downside of Ford's third row, however, is its short seat height compared with its counterparts in the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. As a result, even people with relatively normal-length legs will feel like their knees are too high. The Ford seat works best for small children.
In fact, seat comfort throughout the Freestar is not exceptional. The driver's seat seems to have been designed exclusively for the fashionably slim. And the rake adjustment on the six-way power driver's seat is manual, less convenient than power. The second-row captain's chairs feel narrow.
Audio and climate controls are easy to reach. It seems like the black plastic controls could be prettier, but they work well enough. The manual heating and air conditioning controls are rudimentary, but easy to operate. The available electronic climate control isn't aesthetically pleasing, but works well. The system controls three zones, driver, passenger, and rear. Rear air conditioning is useful for cooling kids and pets on hot days. Window switches
The Freestar has numerous cupholders, including front door holders for 20-ounce bottles. Some of the beverage holders in the far-back are awkwardly positioned, but . Well positioned and well built are sturdy cupholders that fold down from the sides of the second-row captain's chairs. If kicked, as they likely will be, they snap back into their storage position against the seats.
Two engines are available in the Freestar. The standard 3.9-liter V6 generates 193 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque. It rates 18/23 mpg city/highway in EPA testing. The 4.2-liter V6 that comes with the SEL and Limited delivers 201 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque, yet surrenders only 1 mpg.
Neither engine matches the energy of the new Nissan Quest, rated 240 horsepower, nor the redesigned Toyota Sienna at 230 horsepower. But the Freestar's torque is competitive, compared to 242 pound-feet for both the Toyota and the Nissan. And torque is the force you actually feel when you step on the gas, propelling you away from intersections and up steep grades. Freestar's 4.2-liter V6 is the largest in any minivan. and is likely the best choice for highway cruising, passing on freeways and towing.
All Freestars come with a four-speed automatic transmission, which shifts smoothly. Ford credits the transmission's fast-acting hydraulics with shifts that are not only smooth, but quick as well. The company's consumer research showed that minivan buyers don't care whether their automatic was a four-speed or potentially better-performing five-speed (which other manufacturers offer), as long as the shifts were smooth.
The Freestar is extremely quiet. The only exception is that the overhead-valve engine roars a tad too loudly and truck-like under hard acceleration, making it sound a little less refined than some of the competition.
The Freestar's ride is smooth. It glided over the rough pavement of Michigan's Interstate 94. Steering is much more responsive than in the old Windstar. It leans a bit in corners, but handling is predictable. Big four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and EBD are standard, and the brakes are easy to modulate for nice, smooth stops.
The Ford Freestar is a solid minivan available with the latest in safety equipment and engineering. It's big and powerful, much improved over the Windstar. It doesn't offer all the bells and whistles (like all-wheel drive and navigation) nor does it feel as refined as some of the competition. But it's a solid performer. And heavy incentives from Ford make it a more compelling buy.
-With Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles
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