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Ford Freestar defines practical family ride

Clutter-free cabin adds to appeal

By Anita Lienert / Special to The Detroit News

TRAVERSE CITY--It's clear that the redesigned 2004 Nissan Quest is on Barb Samardzich's mind as she points out the features on the 2004 Ford Freestar.

With its plain-Jane exterior and clutter-free minimalist cabin, Freestar is the antithesis of the radically-styled Quest, which shook the minivan world earlier this year with such unusual touches as gauges located in a dramatic center pod, sunroofs with shades and multiple DVD screens.

The Quest's features and muscular looks take it well out of the league of most suburban grocery-getters as Nissan tries to broaden the minivan's appeal beyond mere soccer moms. The Freestar, meanwhile, is a soccer mom's delight.

"The Nissan is eye-catching and designed to get traffic into the showroom," acknowledges Samardzich, 44, a mother of two and the executive director in charge of the Freestar team. "But most moms prefer less distraction in their vehicle. The less you have to turn around and do, the better you are. The Freestar is much cleaner and less cluttered than any of the competitive minivans."

The Ontario-built Freestar -- which replaces the Ford Windstar -- and its sister vehicle, the 2004 Mercury Monterey, are on sale now.

Freestar prices range from $24,460, including a $685 destination charge, for the base S model to $33,630 for the top-of-the-line Limited. Ford says the Freestar Limited is $1,880 less than the most expensive Windstar model. The Monterey ranges in price from $29,995 for the base model to $35,525 for the premier model. Those prices include a $685 destination charge.

And, yes, that's Freestar, not Windstar.

Ford dropped the Windstar name to give its restyled minivan a fresh start and a better fit among Ford's alliterative list of model monikers: Focus, F-150 and, coming soon, Freestyle.

Ford employees who inadvertently refer to the Freestar as Windstar have to put a dollar in a jar outside the Dearborn office of Lloyd Hansen, Ford's vice president of revenue management.

But getting employees -- and consumers -- to remember the new name is just the start of the challenge for the Dearborn automaker. Competition is heated among minivan manufacturers, with the debut this year of the Quest and the impressively redesigned 2004 Toyota Sienna.

After driving both the Freestar and its rivals, this mom puts the new Ford minivan near the top of her shopping list.

The Freestar does not make a revolutionary style statement. It does not present radical design solutions. It doesn't pretend to be a sport utility vehicle or something sexier than it really is. It is not a leader in the horsepower category.

Yet, the Freestar is one of the most authentic minivans on the market. It is designed to serve busy families with a minimum of fuss and pretense.

While many manufacturers claim to have captured the "family-room feel," the Freestar actually delivers on that promise. I kept thinking "comfy sofa" when I was behind the wheel.

The Windstar had an odd instrument panel with mounds of plastic shaped around the driver and front passenger. While this design was supposed to put everything within reach of the driver, it gave the Windstar a bit of a claustrophobic feel.

More importantly, it detracted from the communal nature of a minivan. This type of vehicle should have an accessible look and feel for all passengers. And this has been achieved with the redesign.

The new and beautifully crafted two-tone instrument panel in the Freestar is squared off and almost stark, giving the minivan a spacious, almost European feel.

Buttons are larger and easier to find, and the steering wheel controls are backlit so you can see them at night. The instrument cluster is mounted in a no-nonsense manner directly in front of the driver.

The Ford minivan, which seats up to seven, now has a third-row seat that easily folds flat and stows into a well in the floor, similar to the seat in the Honda Odyssey.

In a neat twist described as "stadium seating," the third-row seat on the Freestar can be flipped around into a rearward-facing position for use when the vehicle is parked. This is a great feature for any parent who has had to watch a soccer game in the rain -- not to mention the tailgating possibilities.

The Ford minivan also gets its first DVD entertainment system -- a single-screen model with wireless headphones -- priced at $1,395.

The Freestar is calculated to go a step further than the Windstar in the safety department, although government testing has yet to be completed. It has larger four-wheel disc brakes with standard antilock brakes on all models. A new "panic brake assist" system, which applies the brakes harder than you ever could in emergency stops, is standard on models equipped with the optional $395 AdvanceTrac stability system.

The Freestar also can be ordered with a new $695 "safety canopy" side-curtain air bag system, which deploys from the headliner to cover most of the glass area along all three rows. The system also includes side air bags for front passengers.

The Freestar has a new 4.2-liter V-6 engine that comes standard on the SEL and Limited models. It is not available on the three other trim levels. The new engine makes 201 horsepower and 263 pounds-feet of torque -- more torque than you get in the Quest, Odyssey or Sienna. That torque translates into more power to pass.

Expect to get about 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway with the 4.2-liter V-6.

The Sienna has a standard five-speed automatic transmission, which improves fuel economy and acceleration. The Freestar is equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission.

The standard engine on the Freestar is a new 3.9-liter V-6 that makes 193 horsepower and 240 pounds-feet of torque. That's a little less horsepower than the old 3.8-liter V-6 on the Windstar.

Admittedly, the base Freestar lags well behind its Japanese competitors in terms of horsepower. Odyssey and Quest deliver 240 horsepower in their 3.5-liter V-6 engines, while the Sienna's 3.3-liter V-6 makes 230 horsepower.

Unlike its most serious domestic competition, the Chrysler Town & Country and the Dodge Caravan, the Freestar will not have a power liftgate at launch. That feature will debut later in the model year. You can't get a navigation system on the Freestar, either.

Like some of the competition, Freestar now comes equipped with standard 16-inch wheels and tires.

My gripes about the Freestar include a console that's too small and narrow, a driver's armrest that's too narrow and short, second-row windows that don't roll down and third-row vent windows that can only be controlled by the driver. The third row is pretty cramped, too. I spent some time back there with my knees higher than my hips -- an awkward position for more than a few miles.

But if your goal is to buy a domestic product that values simplicity over sexiness, the Freestar is a great pick.

(Photo)Convenient storage features have been designed into the Freestar, including a third-row seat bin perfect for stowing groceries. Other storage options include cup holders that fit 20-ounce bottles.

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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