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The Ford Freestyle is what has become known as a crossover vehicle. More than a station wagon, but not quite a sport utility, the Freestyle is a successful example of a crossover. The Freestyle combines space-conscious and people-friendly packaging with a modern powertrain that delivers performance and efficiency.
Three rows of seats yield six-passenger, or even seven-passenger capacity. Its 3.0-liter V6 delivers good performance, while its continuously variable transmission eases engine load and smoothes the drive. All-wheel drive is available for owners who want all-weather capability. The other models use front-wheel drive.
Critics have said that the Freestyle is simply the station wagon version of the new Ford Five Hundred sedan. Technically, 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 was launched as a 2005 model so there are relatively few changes for '06. An optional navigation system is now available for the Limited model.
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 a moment later the car begins to move. The engine then 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 to the same degree, and definitely not as expected with a traditional automatic transmission.
All of this is exactly as planned. The goal of a CVT is to allow the engine to spend as much of its operating time as possible in a rev range that maintains optimum fuel efficiency and generates minimum emissions. The Freestyle certainly delivers in terms of usable power and fuel economy.
In fuel economy, the Freestyle rates an EPA-estimated 20/27 City/Highway mpg with front-wheel drive, 19/24 mpg with all-wheel drive. By comparison, a front-drive Pacifica gets 17/23 mpg with its 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V6.
Stand on the throttle and you may experience some torque steer in the Freestyle, a slight, 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 a little disappointing. Passing is more relaxed with a CVT, as there's no immediate kickdown to a lower, more aggressive gear.
The Freestyle does a reasonably good job of keeping noise out of the cabin. At steady-state cruise, powertrain sounds fade to a whisper, but pavement slap from the tires is clearly audible and some wind noise leaks in around the side windows at freeway speeds.
Commendably, the Freestyle's wide stance gives it reassuring stability around high speed curves and on winding roads. And there's little of the body lean and occupant head toss associated with SUVs. There's a noticeable susceptibility to cross winds, however, which is no surprise given the Freestyle's uprightness.
Ride and handling are reasonably good. The steering returns good on-center feel and turn-in is responsive. Braking is solid, although not entirely linear.
The Ford Freestyle offers many of the advantages of a sport-utility, with lots of cargo room and a roomy cabin capable of seating six or seven passengers. Getting in and out is easier than it is with an SUV, yet the Freestyle's elevated position gives the driver a good view of the road ahead. And because it's based on a car, the Freestyle rides smoother and handles better than an SUV, and gets better fuel economy.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from the Great Lakes area.
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