The Ford Windstar built its reputation not as the sexiest, but as the safest minivan on the market. But the 1999 Windstar also gets a splashy new exterior and an upgraded cabin, plus a handful of really useful new features. The makeover should only enhance the appeal of this best-in-class contender.

She: I asked a friend of mine who's a Chrysler engineer to take a look at the new Windstar. She walked around it a couple of times and ran her hands over the outside; then she sat in all the seats. Finally, she pronounced it inferior because it didn't have a compass. I looked at her and said, "Are you nuts? When's the last time you ever used a compass?"

Well, the funny thing is, she was wrong. The '99 Windstar SEL we're driving does have a compass. It's built into the digital display on the dash, not on the overhead console like Chrysler.

You know what the bottom line is? Finally, the Windstar is world class and at the level of the Chrysler vans. And I think it's prettier than the Chryslers.

He: Sorry, I'm not all that taken with the Windstar's new look. On the two-tone SEL, there's just too much going on. The exterior styling, I think, is too busy for my taste. But you're right, the '99 model does have more character.

Ford redid the cabin, too, and it's getting even more carlike, especially the front seats. We had the plush leather package and lots of bells and whistles, including a fancy audio system. The middle seat, which you can slide from one side to the other, is quite clever, although both the second and third seats are still a bit difficult for one person to remove.

I like Honda's solution better, where the third seat in the Odyssey folds right into the floor.

She: I'm impressed by all the little touches in the cabin, such as the handles on the backs of the front seats. When I'm hauling kids or Grandma, they're always looking for something to grab onto. You can't put enough handles on a minivan for me. I also like the ease of entry into the driver's seat, which you don't have to step up into.

He: There are some very thoughtful features on the 1999 Windstar. One of the more unusual is the reverse sensing system, which uses an ultrasonic sonar device to warn you if small objects that you can't see are within 6 feet of the rear bumper. The system alerts you with a series of beeps that increase in frequency until the object is less than 10 inches from the bumper. I also appreciated the new SmartLock feature, which automatically unlocks the driver's door if you've left the key in the ignition, to prevent you from locking yourself out.

She: I can't think of another minivan that offers such a comprehensive package of safety equipment - everything from standard anti-lock brakes and 5-mph bumpers to optional traction control and side air bags. This year, the Windstar also offers dual sliding doors for the first time, power-operated on the top-of-the-line SEL model, and they're both e quipped with child safety locks. Ford's even thought of little things, such as the height of the driver's seat and that lower rear window, which help me to see the traffic around me better. I really feel secure in the Windstar, which I can't say for some of the other minivans we've tested.

He: Ford also has managed to improve the brakes and the suspension, and still provides one of the most comfortable rides in the minivan segment.

The optional 3.8-liter V-6 is also one of the most powerful engines in the class, at 200 horsepower.

My other gripes are fairly inconsequential. A $30,000 vehicle like this should have separate passenger temperature controls and memory seats. But there's not a lot else to complain about.

She: Even if you're a Chrysler engineer.

1999 Ford Windstar SEL

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, seven-passenger minivan

Price: Base, $20,800; as tested, $30,995

Engine: 3.8-liter V-6; 200-hp at 4,900 rpm; 0 lb-ft torque at 3,600 rpm.

EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $958

Where built: Oakville, Ontario.