Vehicle Overview
Rather than redesign the Windstar, which has been part of Ford’s lineup since 1995, the automaker has introduced a brand-new 2004 minivan with a new name. The Ford Freestar debuted at the Chicago Auto Show and also made an appearance at Toronto’s Canadian International Auto Show in February 2003. At the same time, Mercury introduced a related Monterey minivan.

Ford claims that the newly available 4.2-liter V-6 is the largest engine in a minivan and delivers best-in-class torque. A 3.9-liter V-6 is standard in lower-end models. According to the automaker, the Freestar’s four-speed-automatic transmission provides smoother and quicker shifts with fast-acting hydraulics. The company says that its body construction is the same as the Windstar’s, which earned five-star ratings in government crash tests. In recent testing, the Freestar also earned five-star scores for both frontal and side impacts.

Marketers also promise upgrades in safety innovation, steering, ride and performance, as well as flexible fold-flat seating. A Safety Canopy side curtain-type airbag that protects occupants in all three rows in the event of a rollover is available. On Freestars equipped with Ford’s AdvanceTrac electronic stability system, larger four-wheel disc brakes incorporate a new Panic Brake Assist system that applies added pressure in an emergency. A fail-safe cooling system allows the vehicle to continue running for a short time following a loss of coolant.

Sales began in the fall of 2003. Five trim levels are available: S, SE, SES, SEL and top-of-the-line Limited. A Sport Appearance Plus package is included with the SES edition. A power liftgate became optional after the start of the 2004 model year.


Exterior
Ford has altered the new minivan’s appearance only moderately, so it looks similar to the previous Windstar. Three distinctive front-end styling themes are used to differentiate the models. The S model has monochromatic body-colored fascias and a body-colored grille. The SE and SEL have a chrome grille, while the SES displays a black grille. Limited editions also add color-coordinated two-tone lower body paint.

Large upright headlights and a crosshatch-pattern grille integrate with the hood and front fenders to present a Ford “family appearance.” The automaker says a short front overhang and upright nose help improve the Freestar’s overall proportions when combined with integrated bodyside cladding. Contoured rear bumpers promise a low liftover height, and they flow into a one-piece liftgate.

Standard tires measure 16 inches in diameter, and 17-inch tires on aluminum wheels are optional for higher-end models. Self-sealing tires are available. Measuring 201 inches long overall, the Freestar rides a 120.8-inch wheelbase.


Interior
Although the exterior hasn’t changed much, the Freestar has a fresh interior with upscale touches. Like most minivans, the Freestar will seat up to seven occupants. In the S, SE and SES models, the standard second-row bench seat tips and slides horizontally. Second-row captain’s chairs in upper-end models include a fold-and-tumble feature that permits easy access to the back row. The third-row seat can fold flat into the floor and disappear without removing the head restraints; it can also be positioned to face rearward for use at picnics. According to Ford, the Freestar can be converted in seconds from its full passenger capacity to provide space for 134.3 cubic feet of cargo.

The instrument cluster sits directly ahead of the driver, who faces a four-spoke steering wheel. Limited models include an analog clock, and a wood appliqu� separates the upper and lower instrument panels. Other trim levels have two-tone color to separate the upper and lower sections. Three overhead consoles contain readouts for outside temperature, a compass and auxiliary buttons for the power sliding doors (if installed). A covered storage compartment sits atop the dashboard. Ford’s Conversation Mirror lets drivers keep a close watch on children in the rear seats.

The front doors have cupholders for 20-ounce bottles. Dual-zone automatic temperature control and a four-speaker sound system are standard. Adjustable pedals, a DVD entertainment system and Ford’s Reverse Sensing System are optional.


Under the Hood
Ford’s 3.9-liter V-6 engine, which is standard in S, SE and SES models, delivers 193 horsepower and 240 pounds-feet of torque. The SEL and Limited hold a 4.2-liter V-6 that generates 201 hp and 263 pounds-feet of torque. Both engines mate with a four-speed-automatic transmission. When properly equipped, the Freestar can tow up to 3,500 pounds.

Safety
All-disc antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution are standard. Ford’s Safety Canopy side-curtain airbag system, which includes seat-mounted side-impact airbags for front occupants, is optional. Occupant weight-sensing technology can automatically deactivate the right front airbag if that seat is empty or occupied by a small child. All seating positions have three-point safety belts.

Driving Impressions
The Freestar seems a little more trucklike than most minivans but less so than its Windstar predecessor. A couple of other oddities are carried over from the Windstar. When parking, this minivan seems unusually fat on the outside. A deep gully in the sill that runs inside the front door glass is strange, too. Differences between the Freestar and Mercury Monterey are minimal.

Performance with the 4.2-liter V-6 is energetic, and the automatic transmission yields prompt, smooth shifts. Moderate engine noise during acceleration is still somewhat trucklike. The Freestar is easy enough to drive, and it maneuvers with acceptable agility. Ride comfort is sufficiently smooth on good surfaces but, again, merely on par with rivals.

The seat bottoms are short but offer good support. Front headroom is abundant, and elbow space is adequate. With buckets installed, second-row occupants get plenty of space. Squeezing into the third row isn’t too difficult. Visibility is quite good all around. The gauges are rather small but not difficult to read. A deep cargo well sits behind the third-row seat.