Ford Freestar appears mundane compared with the latest run of minivans, with such spacey creatures as Nissan Quest and Chrysler Pacifica vying for attention. No, Ford's new minivan for 2004 looks pretty much like a common minivan, undistinguished in its bulbous exterior styling and routine in the interior. But looks can be deceiving. Overlook Freestar and you'd be missing one of the nicest performing minivans on the market, with silky driving characteristics, powerful engine and superior handling. Freestar is also one of the most practical, which obviously is the goal of any minivan. Although not huge, Freestar packs a lot of space inside and includes such interesting features as a rear seat that folds into the floor or tilts back to provide tailgate seating. An optional safety canopy with side-impact and rollover air bags provides extra crash protection. Some might question why Ford would take such a conservative tack in styling its latest people hauler. After all, why fade into the mainstream instead of grabbing the attention? Most likely, Ford is banking on drivers who prefer their minivans to be more functional than unique, more comfortably familiar than flashy. If function and comfort are the goals, then Freestar is a winner. Just don't expect any admiring glances. What it is A new minivan for Ford, with more substance than style. Freestar, which replaces the Windstar, comes in five trim levels, S, SE, SES, SEL and Limited with varying body and interior trim and equipment. The SEL model was tested here. Performance The SEL and Limited come standard with a 4.2-liter V-6 that seems light on horsepower at 201 but has loads of pull with 263 pound-feet of torque. The result is a minivan with good acceleration and cruising power from an engine that is quiet and refined. Towing power is rated at 3,500 pounds, which is a lot for a minivan. Standard engine is 3.9-liter V-6 193 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, which still should be enough to power this 4,400-pound van. The four-speed automatic works seamlessly. Freestar comes only in front-wheel-drive configuration, which puts it behind some of the competition with optional all-wheel drive. Freestar can be ordered with optional AdvanceTrac that provides a stability-enhancement system and panic braking assist, both good safety features. Drivability Being a minivan, Freestar's ride and handling are fairly placid. But behind the wheel, I found myself appreciating that very lack of drama. On the road, Freestar soaks up bumps and irregularities while delivering a nicely firm ride. Freeway cruising is remarkably quiet for this type of vehicle, with little harshness on concrete surfaces and essentially no wind roar. The body feels tight and well put together. Cornering is balanced with some body sway, appropriate to a high-profile vehicle. The rack-and-pinion steering has a solid feel, not too light or too quick, just responsive enough for minivan chores. Four-wheel disc brakes are strong. Though hardly sporting, Freestar drives with enough character to keep it from being totally boring. Ford did a nice job of balancing comfort with power and response. Styling Despite the extra chrome on the SEL and some creased character lines, Freestar fades into the suburban landscape with nary a rustle. Not a beauty, not a beast, just a solid citizen doing its job. Interior The interior is just about as plain-Jane as the exterior, though here you'll find the stuff that makes minivans so livable. Cushy seats, plenty of bins and cubbies, lots of cupholders, clear switches and gauges and materials that feel high in quality /p> Front-seat legroom is a bit tight for those of us in the too-tall category, though optional power-adjustable pedals help add a coupe of inches. Or, if you're short, take them away. The third row of seats are pretty cramped for legroom. The rear seats flop easily into the floor, station-wagon style, and the center row folds forward without needing to remove the headrests. The broad cargo area is suitable for furniture hauling or trips to the lumberyard. That rear seat also folds rearward to create a stadium seat for tailgating. This feature was first seen in an MPV by Mazda, a Ford subsidiary. Pricing The basic Freestar starts out at $24,600, with the SEL model tested beginning at $29,310. For that, you get a well-equipped van with all the desirable features, including power driver's seat, leather steering wheel with audio and climate controls, trip computer, rear audio controls, automatic headlights and 116-inch alloy wheels. Options on the tester van were a Value Group that included power pedals, puddle lamps and other features, $710; safety canopy air bags, $695; roof rack, $95; cargo net, $25; and shipping, $685. Total of $31,520 sounds pricey, but that's about middle ground for this loaded minivan. Bottom line There's a lot more to the Freestar than meets the eye. Ford Freestar SEL Vehicle type: Seven-passenger minivan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $29,310. Price as tested: $31,520. Engine: 4.2-liter V-6, 201 horsepower at 4,250 rpm, 263 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Wheelbase: 120.8 inches. Curb weight: 4,406 pounds. EPA mileage: 16 city, 22 highway. Highs: Good drivability. Interior features. Engine power. Lows: Bland styling. Boring interior. Cramped rear seat.