What matters in a minivan? Well, you obviously want the things that have made minivans so popular since Chrysler invented them in 1984. You want a van that drives like a car and is big enough to have lots of interior space, but small enough to fit comfortably in the garage. But there's another element here -- safety -- that's arguably more important than in any other class of vehicle. Minivans are family haulers, and improving the odds for getting precious cargo home alive and unscathed outweighs just about any other consideration. Based on that alone, Ford's new Windstar has a strong case for best choice of a good bunch. It was the first minivan to rate five stars in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration New Car Assessment Program crash testing, which attempts to project the likelihood of serious occupant injury in a crash. Five stars is the top NCAP rating. So what does it mean? Well, for one thing it means that you're 50-percent less likely to sustain serious injury than you would be in a vehicle with a four-star NCAP rating. Buying safety That's a pretty powerful purchase incentive right there, one that helped sustain Windstar sales against competition offering two sliding rear doors -- Chrysler's vans first, and General Motor's redesigned trio -- the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette -- a year ago. In addition to adding the fourth-door option for '99, the Windstar also ups the ante in safety equipment. For example, the new Windstar includes the option of side air bags for the driver and front seat passenger that protect the thorax and head in side impacts, another minivan first. Another nifty option is Ford's new Reverse Sensing System, which uses sonar to warn the driver when something is within six feet of the rear bumper. When that happens, a proximity-warning beeper sounds, and the frequency of the beeping increases as you get closer to the obstacle. When the range decreases to 10 inches, the tone becomes continuous. What will you have to pay for some of these safety goodies? This fully loaded test van has a sticker price of $30,415, including destination charges. Windstar prices will begin at $20,220, including destination, when the '99 vans go on sale Oct. 1. Though it's no sports car, my tester negotiated hard corners without excessive body roll and delivered ride quality that seems even smoother than the original Windstar. On the other hand, while the comfort level -- including quiet operation -- is high, I don't think the Windstar will emerge as the handling champ in this class. . I suspect Honda's completely redesigned Odyssey will be the king of the slalom and double-lane-change tests. However, having been sworn to secrecy about the Odyssey until October, that's all I can say about it right now. In any case, the Windstar should hold its own in agility versus domestic competition, and its standard antilock brakes provide short, stable stops. Let's talk doors Here, too, Ford has pulled a small rabbit out of the hat. The four-door option on the SEL model includes power operation on both sides of the van, one-upping the GM vans. Two clearly marked buttons on the remote keyfob operate the rear doors, adding convenience to the mix. It took a determined push on the buttons of my test fob to get the doors to move, and I wasn't able to produce any response from more than about five feet away. But even so, this is a feature that's sure to be popular with folks who have their arms full of groceries and a small family member as well. Ford has also taken precautions against one of the small family members attempting to test the power doors at an inopportune time with a cutoff switch up front. Inside my spiffy tester I found a two-two-three seating arrangement that's probably the favored configuration ong minivan owners. The second- and third-row seats have rollers underneath to make removability easier, but getting the rear bench out of there is still a task that requires a little help from your friends. GM's modular seats are still the easiest to handle. But like most Ford seats, the Windstars are comfy, and there's plenty of legroom in the front and middle rows, adequate room in the rear and a good-sized storage well in back. Although their purveyors like to dwell on differences of a couple of cubic feet, minivans in the Dodge Grand Caravan and Windstar class -- the maxi-minis -- will all swallow a lot more stuff than any midsize sport-utility. In any case, although the Windstar's wheelbase and length are essentially unchanged, it's a couple inches wider than the original and one of the most voluminous of the bunch. Shall we talk about styling? OK. So what do you think about that big chrome grille up front? It's standard on the upscale SE and SEL models. Aside from the extra portal, that's the most visible appearance change to the new van, and it's hard for me to say that I prefer it to clean ovoid opening of the original. I guess the folks who showed up at Ford's design clinics like the bright stuff. But to my eye, Chrysler's Town and Country and Dodge Caravan are the slickest-looking haulers on the block. However, Ford can still lay claim to an edge in the power department with the Windstar's optional 200-horsepower 3.8-liter V6, standard in my top-of-the-line SEL tester. The standard engine in the basic L version continues to be a 3.0-liter V6 -- adequate at 150 horsepower. The 3.8 V6 is a much more willing ally for making freeway merges or passing maneuvers. Although its horsepower rating is unchanged, refinements yield a significant improvement in torque -- that good old getaway grunt -- to 240 foot-pounds, which continues to be best in class. All in all, the Windstar stacks up as an impressive improvement on a solid original. SPECS Rating: No rating for pre-production vehicles. Vehicle Type: Front-engine, front-drive minivan. Key Competitors: Chevy Venture, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Plymouth Grand Voyager, Pontiac Trans Sport, Toyota Sienna. Base Price (3.0 L): $20,220 Price as tested: $30,415 Standard Equipment (SEL): ABS, dual air bags, 5 m.p.h. bumpers, 4-speed automatic transmission, high capacity air-conditioning, AM/FM/CD/cassette audio with separate rear-seat controls, power front seats, leather seating surfaces, dual power sliding rear doors, power windows, keyless remote entry, power mirrors, cruise control, dual power points, map lights, tilt steering, roof rack, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels. Specifications: (manufacturer's data) Engine: 200-horsepower, 3.8-liter V6 EPA fuel econ.: 17 m.p.g. city, 24 m.p.g. hwy. Curb weight: 4,477 pounds Wheelbase: 120.7 inches Length: 200.9 inches Width: 76.6 inches Height: 65.8 inches Assembled in Oakville, Ontario
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