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Station wagons were once mainstream suburbia. So were minivans. In time, it seems, everything cycles out of favor. And if history is prologue, this fate will ultimately befall sport-utility vehicles. But people still need to haul themselves, their families and friends and their stuff around. And even the roomiest sedan with a multi-golf bag-sized trunk can't do it all.
Into this breech slides the latest iteration of the do-everything vehicle, the so-called crossover. Not quite a wagon, not quite a minivan, not quite an SUV, not quite anything that's come before, the crossover tries to combine the best features from all of these. Some succeed better than others, and into this class falls the all-new 2005 Ford Freestyle.
In the Freestyle, Ford has combined space-conscious and people-friendly packaging and a new-tech powertrain offering performance and efficiency. Three rows of seats yield either six or seven adult passenger capacity, and a unique-for-the-class, continuously variable transmission eases engine load and smoothes the drive. All-wheel drive is available for owners who want all-weather capability.
Critics may say the Freestyle is simply the station wagon version of the new Ford Five Hundred sedan. And in many ways, they're right. Yet many have found the Freestyle inexplicably offers a better driving experience than the Five Hundred, and it's certainly more practical.
The Freestyle is well worth a look for shoppers tired of the everyday vehicle, yet also tired of climbing up into and jumping down out of today's SUVs, and willing to explore something new and slightly different.
The Freestyle presented Ford's designers with a challenge: how to make something that looked like neither a station wagon nor a minivan but promised the best of both. To a large extent, they succeeded, but, and no surprise, not without some compromise.
Built on the same platform and incorporating much of the mechanicals of the new Ford Five Hundred, the Freestyle nevertheless looks more like the Ford Escape compact SUV than the car. From all angles, there are more of the Escape's styling cues than any of the car's cues, from the unadorned and somewhat upright front end to the fender blisters, tall side glass and hefty C-pillar to the liftgate and heavily bumpered tail end. Thus, there's virtually nothing to make a shopper think "station wagon," at least not initially.
Parked next to the Five Hundred, however, similarities abound. The wheelbase is identical. (Wheelbase is the distance between the front and rear wheels.) Lengthwise, the Freestyle is actually an inch shorter than the Five Hundred. Only in height is there a marked difference, where the Freestyle is about five inches taller, more than an inch of which is a result of the Freestyle's added ground clearance. Is it, then, merely a tall station wagon?
Comparing the Freestyle with its demi-namesake, the Freestar minivan, the compromises become apparent. In overall length the Freestar is barely two inches longer, but it's nearly four inches taller and its wheelbase stretches almost another eight inches (accommodating those convenient sliding side doors). These added inches endow the Freestar with a maximum 130.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity, versus the Freestyle's 86.5 cubic feet. All of which says it's not a minivan.
Against the Escape, however, the Freestyle measures up quite well. It's almost two feet longer, with a 10-inch longer wheelbase. And the Escape is barely an inch and a half taller. Inside, the Freestyle offers fully 20 cubic feet of additional cargo space. And though less than an inch shorter in wheelbase than the Explorer, the Freestyle is more than an inch longer overall. The Explorer is, like the Freestar, taller, by some four inches, which helps explain why the Freestyle's seating position is 5.5 inches lower than the Explorer's.
With the Freestyle, then, the stylists' compromises seem to have worked. While it's none of the above, it's some of the above, and some of the best of the above, at that.
Fitting three rows of seats in a package the size of the Freestyle required some compromises, but the good outweighs the bad.
The front seats are decently bolstered, with adequate thigh support. The lower back and rear bottom portions didn't support well, though, on a multi-hour, afternoon drive from Milwaukee along primarily rural roads down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Chicago.
Second- and third-row seats tend more toward utilitarian than coddling, with mostly flat seat bottoms and backs, even the second-row buckets. Otherwise, people room is quite respectable, especially with the twin buckets in the second row. With the second-row bench alternative, the center seat bottom and back cushions are above grade and with even less lateral support relative to the outboard seats. Ford says the third-row seat was designed to comfortably accommodate a 6'1" male, but in reality, occupants of that stature will find their legs quite a bit more articulated and their knees closer to their chests than elsewhere in the Freestyle's cabin. Headroom back there is commendable, though, thanks to a roofline that's several inches higher over the rear seats than at the windshield, a styling feat deftly masked by the angular C-pillar and roof rack. The Freestyle offers great versatility with split-folding third-row seats, an available 60/40 second-row bench seat and a fold-flat front passenger seatback; the last allows hauling objects up to 10 feet long, like a surf board or a ladder, depending on the weekend's activities.
Storage is plentiful, including as many as a dozen cup holders, map pockets on all four doors and rear quarter panels, magazine pouches on the back side of the front seatbacks, a deep area behind the third row of seats (which the seats occupy when collapsed, so this is for occasional use), the usual center console and a modest glove box. And there's the ever-popular sunglasses holder incorporated into the overhead console. That overhead unit also houses the "conversation mirror" (a.k.a., the kid spy glass), although this combo feature gets displaced by the optional moonroof. Second- and third-row seats get reading lights.
The dash design is quiet and uncluttered, assembled from few bits and pieces, promising minimal squeaks and rattles as the Freestyle ages. Framed by the steering wheel are large, round, easy-to-scan, white-on-black (the Limited gets black-on-white) tachometer (sans redline, a result of Ford's ever-diligent cost cutting) and speedometer, between which are the fuel and engine water temperature gauges and, on the SEL and Limited, the digital informational display, all beneath a hood shading them from mid-day glare. At the far ends of the dash are two round air conditioning registers, identical to two atop the center stack; sadly, although all four look as if they rotate in their receptacles, they don't, adjusting only side-to-side and up-and-down, and only the two outboard registers close completely. To the left of the steering column are the headlight and dash light controls, and when ordered the rocker switch for the adjustable pedals. The high-beam, turn indicator and windshield/backlight wiper/washer levers sprout from the left and right side of the column, respectively.
At finger-tip level in the center stack is the stereo control head, for the most part ergonomic, except for the tuning function, which requires either enduring an interminable scan/seek process or depressing one or the other end of a smallish bar until the desired station is reached. Beneath this is a delightfully legible and manageable climate control panel, and below that are switches for the emergency hazard flasher and, when ordered, the traction control; a receptacle that can be converted to an ash tray if necessary; and one of three power points (another is in the center console, the lip of which is notched to allow a power cord to pass beneath the latched cover, the other in the c
Driving a car with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, takes some getting used to. There are no shifts, no gear changes, up or down. Instead, the driver steps on the gas, the engine speeds up and the car begins to move. The engine then commonly maintains about the same, seemingly elevated rpm while the car accelerates to the desired speed, at which point the driver eases off the gas to let the engine slow to where the car keeps moving at that speed. Of course, as elevations change and traffic ebbs and flows, the car's speed changes, as does the engine's, but not always consistently or to the same degree, and definitely not as expected with a traditional automatic.
All shiftlessness aside, the goal of a CVT is to allow the engine to spend as much of its operating time as possible in an rpm range that maintains optimum fuel efficiency and generates minimum emissions. Only the smog cops can attest to emissions levels, but as for efficiency as measured by usable power and fuel economy, the Freestyle's package delivers. Compared to the Chrysler Pacifica AWD, roughly comparable in power although slightly less commodious and 500 pounds heavier, the all-wheel drive Freestyle gets up to speed with a smidgen more spirit, say by about a second or so from 0 to 60 mph. In fuel economy, though, the Freestyle easily prevails, by 2 miles per gallon in both city and highway estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the EPA gives the front-wheel-drive Freestyle an estimated 20/27 City/Highway mpg.
Rapid acceleration generates torque steer, a side-to-side tugging of the steering wheel. This occurs not only in the front-wheel-drive Freestyle, which is not uncommon, but also in the all-wheel-drive variation, which is unusual, or at least should be. Passing is necessarily somewhat more relaxed with a CVT, as there's no immediate kickdown to a lower, more aggressive gear.
Some wind noise leaks in around the side windows at freeway speeds, and there's a noticeable susceptibility to cross winds, which is no surprise given the Freestyle's uprightness. Commendably, though, the Freestyle's wide stance gives it reassuring stability around high speed curves and on winding roads. (Freestyle's front track is a fraction of an inch wider than the Freestar's and its rear track more than two inches wider.) Also, there's little of the body lean and occupant head toss associated with SUVs.
Braking is solid, although not entirely linear. The steering returns good on-center feel and turn-in is responsive. A nice touch is the subdued, wood-like, turn indicator click/click sound apparently borrowed from Jaguar. But even with the SEL's added sound insulation, pavement slap from the tires is clearly audible, although at steady-state cruise, powertrain sounds fade to a whisper.
The new Ford Freestyle is a nice package, with nice looks, a nice powertrain, and a nice starting price, given all that it buys. But the option list is lengthy and full of temptations. Just as the Freestyle's designers did, buyers may face compromises, too.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from the Great Lakes area.
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