For all its strengths -- and it has many -- the 1998 Windstar minivan proves two things Ford would prefer that it didn't: One door can't perform the same functions as two. The customer may not always be right after all.Not the customers Ford talked to during the Windstar's gestation, at any rate.Ford was the first to use the words customer-driven in its marketing, but it's a common theme in product development today.The idea is that you talk to people who are likely prospects for a particular kind of vehicle, find out what's important to them, and make sure the important stuff shows up in the finished product.Ford's exhaustive pre-Windstar market research revealed a laundry list of customer-driven attributes for its new minivan: strong safety features, roominess, front-wheel drive, quiet operation, car-like drivability, smooth power, and adaptability for hauling people, cargo or both.Laudable attributes. And the finished product reflected all of the above. Something missingBut you've undoubtedly noticed the missing attribute. Right. You can't get a fourth door on the driver's side of the van.Even though Ford product planners were pretty sure that the next generation of Chrysler minivans would offer the option of an extra door on the driver's side, consumer clinics seemed to suggest that this would not be a major issue.But that, of course, was before anyone had seen a four-door minivan.When the current crop of Chrysler minivans came along a year later, that new door was a huge hit. About three out of every four Chrysler vans sold now have them.General Motors followed suit for '97 with the new Chevy Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette, with similar fourth-door results.The really unfortunate element of the fourth-door frenzy -- from Ford's point of view -- is that the pre-Windstar research was so convincing that the development team locked in a design that couldn't be modified for a fourth door without a major overhaul.It's not just a matter of cutting another hole in the side and stamping out a couple of different body panels -- a pretty expensive modification in its own right.Because there's a lot of wiring and plumbing routed down the left side of the chassis, adapting the current Windstar for a fourth door essentially represents nothing less than a major redesign, something Ford doesn't plan to do until the 1999 model year.Family Entry SystemNevertheless, sales of the new Chrysler vans made it clear that the Windstar needed a competitive response to all the four-door minivans.And that response is the new Family Entry System, which makes the driver's side door six inches longer. Allied with a tip-slide driver's seat -- standard on the LX and Limited versions, an extra-cost feature on the base and GL models -- the system does make it possible for middle row passengers to climb in or out, and they don't have to be contortionis ts to do so.However, it's obviously easier for someone to get out by simply opening a door and stepping down to mother Earth.The Family door is even less effective if you're juggling a couple bags of groceries with one hand and perhaps hanging onto an active kid with the other.To stow anything much bigger than a basketball in the rear you must put whatever it is down, operate the tilt-slide seat, stow the cargo, and restore the seat to its original position.It's easier to walk around to the other side and just use the sliding door. And if the youngster is child safety seat size, there's no way you're going to install him or her in the rear from the driver's side -- unless you enjoy challenges.Some of my auto-writing colleagues suggest that the wider driver's door can be a bit of problem in tight parking spaces, even though it extends only an inch more than the original doo r.Maybe so, but I didn't perceive any real difference in several strip mall tests, even amid the amazingly random parking that afflicts my local supermarket.But that's not the issue. While it seems to me that Ford ought to make the tip-and-slide seat standard across the board, with or without it the Family Entry System is just not as useful as a fourth door.However, if driver's-side loading and unloading isn't a be-all, end-all issue for you, the Windstar still stands near the head of its class.5-star safety ratingIn fact, in the area of occupant protection in head-on collisions, it stands alone as the only minivan to earn a five-star rating (10 percent or less chance of serious injury) in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash testing.With the 3.8-liter V6 engine -- optional in my GL test van, standard in the LX and Limited versions -- the Windstar also has the highest horsepower rating of any minivan going.The basic 3.0-liter V6 generates 150 hp, more than enough to keep pace with traffic. But the 200 hp supplied by the 3.8-liter version lends real zeal to forward progress, as well as an added measure of safety in freeway merges and passing on two-lane highways.Ride quality has been a Windstar strong suit right from the get-go, and still measures up well.I'd be inclined to give a small edge to GM's new minivans in absolute handling -- the combination of an excellent chassis and limited body roll give the Venture, Trans Sport and Silhouette very good responses in emergency maneuvers -- but the Windstar's steering system is the most precise of the current front-drive crop.The Windstar is also as good as any in terms of operating noise levels. A slick, aerodynamic shape and plenty of sound isolation add up to normal voice levels at freeway speeds, even if you're talking to rear seat passengers -- unless, of course, you feel inclined to yell at them in sorting out sibling territorial disputes.The '98 Windstar also offers a useful option -- a convex panoramic mirror -- to enhance parental diplomacy. Integrated into the optional overhead console, the mirror flips down to give driver or front seat passenger a view of the rear seats to determine just who is tormenting whom.Roomy and adaptableAlthough the Windstar isn't as space efficient as the new Chrysler minivans, it's still among the roomiest, with good adaptability for varying combinations of people and/or other stuff.For example, the third row seat is mounted on rails, allowing fore and aft travel to yield a little extra legroom or, sliding the other way, a little more cargo space at the back.The second and third row seat backs flip forward, or, like most minivans, those seats can be removed entirely to yield a cargo hold that looks like a small dirigible hangar. You can get 4-by-8 sheets of building material to lie flat back there, and the only drawback to the whole arrangement is that getting the seats out is definitely a job for two people. The GM vans are still tops in this respect.However, the Win dstar's oversize rear liftgate makes it ultra-easy to load or unload stuff from the rear, and the gate is easy to open and close, thanks to a handy latch for the first operation and a pull-down strap for the latter. There's also a rear switch for the power door locks, so you don't have to walk back up front to lock up, and there are two side-mounted latches -- rather than a single center latch, a la Chrysler -- so there's nothing to keep boxes from sliding smoothly inside.In terms of overall ergonomics, the Windstar stacks up very well versus the other major players. The rotary climate control knobs are easy to use, small switches like the cruise control buttons and power window controls are distinguishable by touch, and all controls are angled in toward the driver, to eliminate long reaches.Tiny buttons a hangupThe sole exception here is the audio control panel, which belongs to the previous generation of Ford systems -- tiny buttons that require too much attent ion when the vehicle is moving.The new sound systems used in the Explorer, F-Series pickups and Expedition are much better. Ford could have saved a lot of dough and made a welcome improvement by leaving the door alone and installing its newer audio systems instead.Speaking of money, the Windstar falls into the middle of mainstream front-wheel-drive minivans if you compare it to the long-wheelbase editions from Chrysler and GM.The base price for a Windstar GL, including a $580 destination charge, is $21,235, a little more than a Plymouth Grand Voyager or Dodge Grand Caravan, a little less than the long-wheelbase versions of GM vans.The GL is a little stark in terms of standard equipment, and my 3.8-liter tester had a $4,405 preferred equipment package that included high-capacity air-conditioning, AM/FM/cassette sound, the overhead console, cruise control, tilt steering, power windows, power mirrors, and an interior lighting group.With other extras, the pre-destination charge total chimed in at $26,050, but a "special added discount" reduced the total to a competitive $25,300.The bottom line: The Family Entry System wasn't worth whatever it cost Ford, and it's an inadequate alternative to a fourth-door option.Beyond that, though, the Windstar continues to offer some distinct advantages, safety and power prominent among them.Unless that fourth door is an absolute necessity, this van still merits a hard look.
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