It's amazing the difference a door makes.

Ford's Windstar did not have a left-side sliding door when it was introduced, but neither did any other vans. Not long after, however, Chrysler's latest minivan appeared with an optional fourth door and forever changed the minivan landscape. Buyers clamored for a fourth door and Ford had to play catch up, but adding a door is more than just cutting a hole in the side. Significant engineering changes are required, and Ford scrambled.

The result can be seen on the 1998 Windstar, which has the next best thing to a sliding fourth door: a six-inch wider driver's door and a tip-slide seat that opens up access to the second seat. Kids can jump in easily, and you no longer have to struggle to find a place for a briefcase or bag of groceries.

The door/seat combination, which Ford calls a Family Entry System, opens up a space 13 inches wide at the step-in level and nearly two feet wide at hip level. The wider door is about the same as a mid-size coupe, which is to say fairly wide, but it didn't cause me any trouble in parking lots or garages. What I did notice was that it was harder to reach the seatbelt because it was farther back, and I often had to shut the door twice to get it to latch completely. Those are minor problems that are easily overshadowed by the benefit of added access. In the end a fourth door is better. Look for one in 1999.

From a safety perspective, Ford touts the Windstar's five-star government safety rating, the only minivan to be so rated. Dual airbags and anti-lock brakes are standard, while traction control is optional. While our test vehicle was not equipped with traction control, I did get to experience it more than a year ago when I drove a Windstar on snowy roads, and it was extremely competent and secure.

Other changes to the Windstar for 1998 include a revised grille and headlights, new hood, head restraints for second- and third-row passengers and a panoramic mirror that folds down from the optional overhead console. This "conversation" mirror enables the driver to keep an eye on the kids in back without taking their eyes from the road. A handy feature.

The Windstar is an excellent vehicle. It drives with the manners of a car, and the lack of noise is superb. The 3.8-liter engine in our LX test vehicle has 200 horsepower, more than any other minivan. This engine is standard in the LX and Limited series and optional in the GL. Not only does it have the capability of towing a 3,500-pound trailer, but it also provides sparkling performance, especially with a full load.

A 3.0-liter engine with 150 horsepower is also available on the base and GL models.

The van I drove had a seven-passenger, quad-seating option which included captain's seats in the second row. This configuration is the most comfortable but it may be less versatile than a second-row bench. The leather seats, an $865 option, were deeply contoured for support and I foun d them most comfy.

From an ergonomic perspective, the Windstar is generally good but the radio's old-style controls are small and overly complex, unlike the radios in other Fords. I would also like to see the radio and climate controls up a little higher in the dash so they would be easier to reach.

Storage bins abound, the cupholder is versatile and the instrumentation is simple and clear.

Dynamically, the Windstar handles almost as fluidly as a family sedan. It sits fairly flat in turns and barrels down the interstate pleasantly.

Price

The base price of our Windstar LX test vehicle was $25,905. It was equipped with an overhead console, seven-passenger quad seating, rear defrost, roof rack, cruise control, tilt wheel, leather seats and keyless remote.

The sticker price was $28,150.

Warranty

The standard warranty is for three years or $36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufact ers.

Point: Extending the driver's door by six inches and adding a tip/slide seat improves access to the second row of seats.

The Windstar's five-star crash rating is the best for a minivan.

Counterpoint: The bigger door is a little harder to close and reaching the seatbelt is harder.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 3.8-liter, V6

TRANSMISSION: automatic

WHEELBASE: 120.7 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,762 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $25,905

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $28,150

MPG RATING: 17 city, 24 hwy.