Ford Motor Co.'s all-new Freestyle family hauler-it's not really a utility vehicle and not quite a station wagon-arrives in a crowded market segment, hoping to carve out some elbow room with such features as all-wheel drive, three rows of seats and a continuously variable transmission.
A companion to the new Five Hundred sedan, the Freestyle is competing head to head with the Chrysler Pacifica and a raft of all-wheel-drive wagons from Europe and Japan.
We tested a mid-level 2005 Freestyle AWD SEL priced at $29,840.
HE: The Freestyle designers and engineers at Ford should send a hearty thank-you and a substantial royalty check to Ford's Swedish subsidiary Volvo, which was clearly the inspiration for this tall-roof wagon. It uses the same basic underbody architecture that underpins most of the larger Volvo sedans and wagons. Ford also freely borrowed from the XC70-Volvo's Cross Country all-wheel-drive wagon and the XC90 utility vehicle. But somehow the result isn't quite as pleasing as either Swedish people mover. The Freestyle certainly has more personality than its plain-vanilla sibling, the Five Hundred, and boasts plenty of family-pleasing features. But it lacks the panache and appeal of its Volvo cousins.
SHE: Volvo, nothing. What the Freestyle reminds me of is the first Christmas gift your parents gave me: A lumpy sleeping-bag-like thing designed to keep you warm while you were watching TV or sitting around. It made me look like a giant baked potato. But I actually got attached to it because it was so comforting and comfortable. Just like the Freestyle. It's this dowdy, plain thing that you'll ultimately feel comfortable and safe in-kind of a baked potato on wheels.
HE: I remember that bag thing. It actually made you look like a twice-baked potato-with sour cream.
SHE: But it was all about practicality, just like the Freestyle. With the Freestyle, you get the best of both worlds, especially when it comes to seating. The seats are raised to a command seating position, as in a sport utility vehicle. But you don't have to hoist yourself up. It's more like getting into a sedan. Freestyle's got a standard third-row, too, so it can seat up to seven passengers. All the rear seats and the front passenger seat fold down for easier cargo hauling. So it's very flexible in terms of accommodating either passengers or gear.
HE: I'd hate to have to squeeze two adults in that third row. And I was surprised that our nearly $30,000 test vehicle didn't come with heated seats or leather upholstery, even though it's competing with some pretty pricey premium brands from Europe.
SHE: More importantly, you're going to pay extra for some safety equipment. While antilock brakes and traction control are standard, it costs $695 for side air bag protection for front and rear passengers. On a family vehicle at this price, side bags and curtains should be standard.
HE: There are other shortcomings. Freestyle is powered by a 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 engine with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, which saves fuel and optimizes engine performance. But the engine is too small, underpowered and overworked, even with just one or two people on board. I also found the CVT to be sluggish when it was cold, which will not endear this new technology to a lot of consumers. On the plus side, the Freestyle has pretty good ride comfort, although the ample exterior proportions make it a bit difficult to park and maneuver in tight spaces.
SHE: I like the automatic all-wheel-drive system. There are no switches to throw and when all-wheel drive isn't needed, the Freestyle functions as a front-wheel-drive vehicle. The gas mileage is better than you get on some big truck-based SUVs, at 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway. On the downside, customers expecting a wide range of amenities might be a little disappointed. You can't get a navigation system, for instance. Nor can you get a power liftgate or even a helpful standard feature like a strap for that heavy tailgate.
HE: The Freestyle is decent in many respects, but certainly not a standout- not in a segment that's already packed with many outstanding products at competitive prices.
Anita and Paul Lienert are partners in Lienert & Lienert, a Detroit-based automotive information services company
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