Freestar feels familiar

That's right. It's Freestar, not Windstar. When Ford Motor Co. launched its restyled Ford Windstar minivan last fall, the company gave it a new name to better fit its alliterative list of products, which includes the Focus and F-150 pickup. The name change is about the most radical part of the 2004 Ford Freestar.

Ford did not rip up the blueprints when it came to the exterior of its minivan . and that formed the basis for much of our discussion. We tested a well-equipped SEL model priced at $31,520.

SHE: I know that you're being a big crab about Ford's redesigned minivan. You were hoping that they would have injected a bit of, God forbid, sexiness into the family hauler. Instead, Ford spent its money wisely, creating a third-row seat that easily folds flat and stows into the floor. And the seat can be flipped to face the rear for use when the vehicle is parked, great for soccer games. Ford gave the Freestar bigger brakes and a new 4.2-liter V-6 that comes standard on the SEL model we drove and the top-of-the-line Limited. It gave the Freestar its first DVD entertainment system, which families tell me is a necessity for kids on long trips. All thoughtful features. So why are you giving it a middle-of-the-road grade?

HE: I think you're judging me too harshly. In fact, I don't think minivans need to be sexy. But there are a number of competitors that offer more features and meet the needs of their audience more completely than the Freestar. Let's take that new 4.2-liter V-6 you mentioned. It makes 201 horsepower and is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The Environmental Protection Agency rates that combination at 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway. The horsepower figure, the transmission and the EPA fuel economy are strictly middle-of-the-road compared with the Honda Odyssey, which, by the way, is at the end of its current life cycle.

SHE: Does it matter to you that the Freestar has what I consider the best coat hook in the business? It's a great little gadget that's recessed into the ceiling about 6 inches away from the door so that you can see it when you're loading stuff from the dry cleaners. You don't have to fumble around for it with your fingers. And that's my point, it's the little details in the Freestar that really won me over. Sometimes the biggest engine on the block isn't the most important thing.

HE: So let's talk about details. I give Ford credit for installing some very simple and easy-to-use controls on the Freestar. The dual-zone temperature controls are a good example. You sure don't need an engineering degree to figure them out. I thought the wood trim that Ford installed on the instrument panel was quite tasteful. But not every detail stood up to close scrutiny. We noticed gaps, for instance, where the hard plastic on the side pillars meets the headliner. It would have been nice, too, to have a small cargo net between the front seats, like some of the competition offers.

SHE: But the big picture is that the Freestar is a very solid minivan, especially if you are determined to buy a domestic product. Our SEL had an optional side-curtain air bag system that protects all three rows of passengers, as well as optional power adjustable pedals. I really love the fact that you can jump in the Freestar, without getting any instruction from a sales person or an owner's manual, and feel absolutely at home with the controls. That is not the feeling you get in the redesigned Nissan Quest minivan, which has an instrument panel that looks like it was designed by an aeronautical engineer. The Freestar has a very spare elegance in the cabin, which I'm sure a lot of moms will appreciate. They may not appreciate the fact that the second-row windows can't roll down or that you can't order it with a navigation system, however.

HE: I think my biggest disappointment is tha Ford took the cheap and easy route, and decided only to do a modest face-lift on its minivan while competitors such as Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Co.p. are doing major ground-up redesigns. The new Toyota Sienna, for example, really raised the bar for other players in this segment, and I expect the redesigned 2005 Odyssey will do the same. Maybe Ford is content with fielding a middle-of-the-road product. But that's no way to stand out in a crowd.