Couldn't understand why Chris Theodore, then head of car development at Ford, got so excited whenever talking about the crossover the automaker was developing as a companion to the upcoming Five Hundred sedan.
"It will define crossovers," promised Theodore, who now heads advance product creation and works on the GT.
Have to admit that when prototypes were available for a peek, the Ford crossover didn't send shivers up, much less down, the spine.
It looked like a little station wagon, though we never said that to Theodore because it would be akin to looking at pictures of a colleague's baby and saying: "These taken at the zoo?"
In the last few years, the crossover has been given the old nip-here-and-tuck-there routine. Now it's ready for the market, and Theodore has reason to be proud.
It still looks a little like a wagon, but a lot more like a sport-utility vehicle. The honeycomb grille and rectangular headlamps give it the look of Ford's truck lineup.
Plastic rocker panel and wheel-well moldings are decorative and protective when it comes to road debris.
A luggage rack camouflages the raised roof that allows ample head room over the third-row seat.
The beauty of the machine that looks small on the outside but is very spacious on the inside is that it offers a choice of front- or all-wheel-drive.
It looks like a sport-ute and can be substituted for one. You get car-like ride and handling as well as car-like mileage along with the feature most folks switch to SUVs to get-all-wheel-drive.
The Freestyle will be offered in SE, SEL and Limited versions.
Freestyle raises the question of why anyone would buy a Freestar, the name given the former Windstar minivan. Good question.
Freestyle can seat up to seven. The third-row seat features a bench that flips and folds flat into the floor after you pull straps 1, 2 and 3.
If you'd like a split third-row seat so you can flip and fold one side or the other and still allow for a passenger, it's a $115 option.
Second-row seat backs also fold flat, as does the front-passenger seat back to increase cargo capacity beyond what most folks will need or use. A deep well in the floor behind the third-row seat allows for ample storage.
Folding the front passenger seat makes room for a ladder, the feature slowly replacing the number of cupholders as the measure of how functional a vehicle can be.
Ford makes it easy to access the third row. Flip-and-fold second-row seats make for a large aisle to the back. Once there, you'll be happy the roof was raised to add head room, but you'll wish something had been done to provide more leg room. Adults in the third row will find the seat backs are low and as a result the headrests along the top of the seats dig into your shoulders rather than cushion your neck.
The third row is for kids, though only the one sitting on the right gets a cup/juice box holder.
Freestyle shares some features with the Five Hundred (Transportation, Sept. 12), such as being derived from the XC90 platform from Volvo, which is owned by Ford. And, like the Five Hundred, front seats are mounted on a side to side rail to eliminate those unsightly metal tracks in the floor.
It also has the clever and useful covered stowage bin in the center top of the dash to hide things and keep little items such as pens from being tossed about the compartment.
The center console armrest also provides stowage, along with tissue and coin holders and a power plug for the cell phone and an indent in the wall for the phone cord.
Though you can carry a ladder inside, Ford didn't sacrifice when it came to cup and/or juice box holders (12) located in the console, each door and the back of the center console for rear-seat occupants.
When it comes to performance, the suspension is appropriately tuned for a cushioned ride and decent handling.
We tested the AWD Freestyle, which delivers the quickest and surest response to steering-wheel input. In addition to the streets of the Chicago area, we tested Freestyle on a handling course in Michigan, a series of pylons to maneuver around and through. Freestyle performed with confidence without rockin' or rollin', leaning or swaying.
A couple gripes, however. One is that the seats could use a little more side support and a deeper and longer bottom for more comfort and thigh support on long trips.
Freestyle is powered by the same 3-liter 203-horsepower V-6 as the Five Hundred. If the crossover was loaded with seven passengers and their belongings, some might argue it could use more power to climb inclines.
With only driver on board, there was no problem. And the fuel economy rating for an AWD vehicle at 19 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway was a pleasant surprise. We'd like another mile per gallon city and highway, but this is the vehicle's first year, and future model years no doubt will bring change.
The 3-liter is teamed with a CVT, or continuously variable transmission, with an infinite number of gear ratios based on pedal input. Those used to hearing and feeling automatic transmission shift points will have to adapt to not hearing or feeling any.
The Freestyle SEL starts at $30,185 and comes with anti-lock brakes, power locks/seats/windows, power heated/folding mirrors, remote keyless entry, 17-inch radial tires, AM/FM stereo with clock and CD/MP3 players, air conditioning, privacy glass, plastic grocery bag holders in the cargo hold, body-colored door handles and a conversation mirror in the front roof to see children in back without having to turn.
The test vehicle added a host of options, including the split third-row seat backs as well as power moonroof at $895 and the safety package with side-impact and side air-bag curtains for $695. You can get a reverse-sensing system that beeps as you approach an object as you back up. It runs $250.
Freestyle acts more like a car than an SUV when it comes to pleasant ride without lots of bounce or jarring as well as when it comes to slipping easily into and out of the parking space or moving into the passing lane.
It's called a crossover, but perhaps multipurpose is a more apt description of how it serves a variety of functions.
Ford wants to sell 125,000 annually. Shouldn't be a problem.
Strictly personal: Birthday greetings to grandson, Jac, celebrating No. 6.
2005 Ford Freestyle SEL
Wheelbase: 112.9 inches
Length: 199.8 inches
Engine: 3-liter, 203-h.p. V-6
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel economy: 19 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway
Base price: $30,185
Price as tested: $35,130. Includes $1,700 for all-wheel-drive; $895 for power moonroof; $795 for leather seats; $495 for comfort package with eight-way power driver's seat/four-way power passenger seat, outside temperature display and dual-zone climate control; $250 for reverse sensing; $695 for safety package with side-impact and front and rear side air-bag curtains; and $115 for split/folding third-row seat. Add $650 for freight.
Pluses: New midsize crossover offering front- or all-wheel-drive. Third-row seat flips and folds flat into floor, and second-row seats fold flat for cargo room. Looks small outside, feels big inside. Alternative to a sport-utility vehicle, with car-like ride, handling and fuel economy. Built in Chicago.
Minuses: Only a 3-liter V-6 for now. Turn indicator too loud.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.
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