Minivans make sense. They did back in 1984 when Chrysler built the first one, and they still do today.

The trouble is, a lot of 30-year-olds gravitate to SUVs instead of minivans when vans would do a better job of carrying around their budding families. Maybe that's because they grew up being chauffeured around in them, or maybe it's because they think of minivans as old folks vehicles, like station wagons were to us when we were kids.

Suffice it to say, minivans today are better than ever. Instead of driving like wobbly boxes, they are buttoned down, solid and as nicely equipped as any family sedan. Many, like the Windstar driven here, even come with a built-in video player and a flip-down screen that will keep kids occupied when mom and dad insist on taking the kind of driving vacations lavished upon them by their parents.

For 2001, Ford has updated the Windstar with a chrome grille and 16-inch wheels, and the 200-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 engine is now standard on all models. Ford says the Windstar is classified as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV). Another key piece of standard equipment is the Personal Safety System that uses sensors to determine the severity of a crash, the position of the front seat and whether seat belts are in use. Two-stage front airbags then deploy according to crash severity and whether the passenger seat is occupied. Retractors tighten the seat belts to help control an occupantÕs forward motion. A low-tire-pressure warning system also alerts the driver if a tire needs air.

In recent crash tests by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the Windstar received a five-star rating for front and rear passengers in a side impact. In 1999, it received five stars for frontal impacts. Results for 2001 are not yet available, but there is no reason to think they would be any lower.

Later in the year, Ford's AdvanceTrac vehicle stability system will be available. AdvanceTrac uses the anti-lock brakes and traction control systems to help counteract skidding in emergency evasive maneuvers. Our test vehicle was also equipped with the power-operated adjustable pedals so short drivers donÕt have to sit dangerously close to the steering wheel.

The 200-horsepower engine that is now standard has been tweaked to reduce noise and vibration, but it still sounds a tad coarse when accelerating away from a stop. Power and performance are on par with the other minivans.

Inside, the SELÕs leather upholstery and wood trim contributed to its upscale feel. The instrument panel, much the same as before, is easy to read and use thanks to simplified gauges and controls. The requisite dual sliding doors are power operated, which is extremely handy if you need to open the doors with things in your hands.

The Windstar's third seat has to be removed for maximum cargo space, which is not as handy as one that folds into the floor.

A reverse sensing system consists of four sensors in the bac k bumper that detect obstacles within 6 feet. As you back up, warning beeps grow closer together until there is a steady tone when the vehicle is within 10 inches of the object. Since rear visibility can be challenging, this system makes backing up and parking much less nerve-wracking.

The optional video system has a color monitor that folds down from the ceiling for easy viewing by back-seat passengers. The VCR is handily mounted in the center console between the front seats. Rear-seat passengers can control the system from the back of the console, which has audio/visual inputs, volume control, media selection, seek function and headphone jacks. Dual headphones are included so front-seat passengers can listen to the stereo while the kids in the back watch a movie.

Price The base price of our test model, the top-of-the-line SEL, was $30,920. Options included the reverse parking sensors, trailer towing package and AutoVision family entertainment system. The stic r price was $33,615.

Warranty Three years or 36,000 miles.

To get in touch with Tom Strongman, send e-mail to tstrongman@kc.rr.com.

{Point:} The Windstar's excellent safety rating, dual power sliding doors and optional family entertainment center make it attractive to families with small children. Power, adjustable pedals and the soon-to-be-available vehicle stability program make it even safer. The 200-horsepower engine is now standard across in all models.

{Counterpoint:} I prefer a third seat that folds into the floor and the engine is not quite as quiet and smooth as some of its competitors.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 3.8-liter V-6
Transmission: automatic Front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 120.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,988 lbs.
Base price: $30,920
As driven: $33,615
Mpg rating: 18 city, 24 hwy.