Say this for the all-new 2005 Ford Freestyle: It's appropriately named. It's so free-verse that it defies labeling. Is it a sport-utility vehicle? A minivan with four doors? A high-riding wagon?



Well, yes, on all counts.

Ford calls it a midsize crossover vehicle, and that describes it as well as anything. It handles like a passenger car but can carry weighty cargo and play in the mud like a true SUV.

During a weeklong test drive, the Freestyle SEL with all-wheel drive and a continuously variable transmission was equally nimble on pavement or on a mild, off-road course about an hour's drive north of Sacramento. And for my money, it came off as one of the best products Ford has introduced in years.

Surprised? I was.

You wouldn't expect a Ford-built crossover starting at $28,045 to draw unsolicited compliments from passersby, but that happened frequently during my week in the Freestyle. Folks liked the way it looks, and rightly so.

The Freestyle's exterior says "racy SUV." A long hood, flared wheel arches and rounded corners sit on top of fancy, 17-inch wheels.

Ford engineers said they spent many hours pondering Freestyle's interior design, sculpting the cabin for three rows of seats that can comfortably seat up to seven - no easy chore on a vehicle a fingernail short of 200 inches in length.

They did a pretty fair job. Three hefty adults might feel squeezed in the third row - a 50/50-split bench - but there is adequate leg room to maneuver yourself free of shoulder contact with your neighboring seatmate. The tester came with a second-row bench seat split 60/40. Again, adequate leg room made that arrangement comfortable for adults.

For kids - Ford is heavily marketing the Freestyle to families - the second-and third-row benches in the SEL that I tested offered plenty of room. Translation: Good news for parents on long road trips with squirming children.

Freestyle is being offered in six trim levels with varying seat configurations. Buckets, benches and folding seat backs can be found to suit virtually every taste.

Happily, Freestyle's dashboard and center stack of controls are easily understood, although I wish Ford would have used more-expensive materials in the center console, which has a low-budget, plastic feel and look.

Easily the most surprising aspect of the Freestyle SEL was its handling. Its passenger-car foundation and 203-horsepower V-6 engine promised aggressive agility, but I feared the 4,100-pound vehicle would struggle during a run up the hills outside Nevada City.

I was wrong.

During a particularly steep climb on wet pavement, I kept waiting for a telltale groan from the powertrain that would indicate imminent surrender of acceleration. Nothing of the kind happened, however. It seems to be a perfect match of engine, all-wheel drive and the continuously variable transmission, which utilizes two variable-size pulleys and a metal chain.

Theoretically, a CVT offers an infinite number of gear ratios, but who cares to count when even uphill accelerations are strong and seamless?

Other Freestyle perks include numerous on-board storage areas - including a recessed bin that pops open at the touch of a button atop the instrument panel - and a solid body structure borrowed from Volvo, which is under the Ford Motor Co. umbrella.

Ford, which billed 2004 as the "year of the car," needs a winner after coming to market late with its Five Hundred passenger car. Consequently, the company is pushing Freestyle as a vehicle that can be nearly all things to all people.

"Freestyle is the crossover done right," said Phil Martens,Ford's group vice president for product creation.

"We didn't try to adapt an existing minivan or sport-utility platform. Freestyle is built from the ground up as a crossover with class-leading spaciousness, seven-passenger comfort, versatility and all-wheel-drive capability," he said. "We believe these strengths give Freestyle the strongest potential to define the crossover market - much like the Ford Explorer defined SUVs a decade ago."

But be advised that the Freestyle is not a heavyweight vehicle. Ranchers, farmers and serious haulers of cargo are more likely going to stick with their beefier SUVs and maybe even opt for full-size pickups with new hybrid technology. The Freestyle is not going to be enough vehicle for this crowd.

To that end, I think Ford has certainly carved a niche in the crossover market with the Freestyle. For families, parents transporting activity-laden kids and those whose cargo load typically includes a dozen grocery bags, the Freestyle shapes up as an ideal choice - practically sized and fairly priced.

And bargain-hunters, take note: An entry-level Freestyle SE with front-wheel drive starts around $25,000.

About the writer: The Bee's Mark Glover can be reached at (916) 321-1184 or mglover@sacbee.com.