Re: U.S.A.:Ford replaces the aging Windstar, renews fight for minivan sales
MARK PHELAN: Flexible seating design is the Freestar's forte
Foldaway 3rd row is nifty; rest of interior is lackluster
October 30, 2003
BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
The new Ford Freestar is not a great minivan, but it has a great fold-flat third-row seat and really good flip-forward middle-row captain's chairs.
In the hyper-practical minivan market, that's enough to win it three stars, despite the high price of the Freestar I tested and an interior that is at best marginally attractive and an exterior design with barely visible changes from the Windstar it replaces.
The maxed-out Freestar Limited I drove cost $36,200. Freestar prices start at $23,775 for the S model. Ford expects the $26,245 SE, $28,065 SES and $29,310 SEL models to account for most sales. Those prices exclude destination charges.
It's not flashy, but flexible seating is to minivans what 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration is to muscle cars: Get that right and owners will forgive you for a lot of other shortcomings.
The third-row seat in the Freestar is a marvel. Counterweighted and carefully labeled, it approaches the Holy Grail of single-finger operation.
How easy is it to make the third-row bench seat fold flat and disappear into the floor?
I'm glad you asked.
It's so easy that my friend Vivian Lie, in her ninth month of pregnancy, folded it flat and then popped it back up into position in moments, all the while looking at me with dismay as I babbled, "OK, don't strain yourself. Stop right away if you feel any strain. You're not straining, are you?"
"What? It's nothing," she said dismissively as her 5-year-old daughter, Lillian, clambered over the top of the seat to make faces.
Three straps hang from the back of the seat, labeled 1, 2 and 3. You pull and release 1, and the seat back drops flat onto the bottom cushion. Then pull 2, which releases the seat from the van's floor. Finally, pull 3, and the entire seat pivots lightly upward and drops into a cavity in the van's floor for a flush fit.
The seat is counterweighted like a good window, so you only have to start it in motion, and the offsetting weight does most of the work for you.
The seat can also be flipped over so it faces out of the tailgate for use at picnics and tailgate parties. That function works only with the tailgate open, to discourage people from driving around that way.
Redeploying the seat into its upright position is equally simple and easy.
The third-row bench seat is low and narrow, making it suitable for three small children or slim adults on a very short trip.
The third-row seat is standard equipment.
The second-row captain's chairs also have an innovative mechanism to flip them forward so passengers can get in and out of the third row.
A gas-powered strut under each seat does most of the lifting, allowing Lillian to unlatch the seats to get in and out on her own. Once it's been raised, the seat provides a spot for children and adults to brace themselves on it as they climb in and out. The gas strut also keeps the seats from slamming quickly down onto the floor, to keep children's fingers and toes from being caught in the seat anchors.
The optional second-row captain's seats -- a bench is standard -- also slide fore and aft and can be removed from the van. They sit close to the floor, making them handy for mothers reaching around to their children but less than ideal for adults.
The heated front seats in the top-of-the-line Freestar Limited drove had power adjustments and memories to store two different positions but were rather narrow. The memory buttons also stored positions for the adjustable pedals, which are a particularly appealing feature.
Leather-trimmed seats are standard equipment in the Limited model, which Ford expects to account for about 21 percent of Freestar sales. Unfortunately, it's a rather unappealing, slick smooth leather that struck me as no better than good plastic.
Good plastic is in rather short supply in the Freestar. The van might take the lead in innovative seating, but it still hasn't recovered from the drastic cost cutting that cheapened the Windstar's interior.
The optional center console mounted on the floor between the two front seats feels and looks flimsy and cheap, and while the faux-leather plastic across the dashboard has an appealingly soft feel, it also falls far short of the richer-looking materials in new minivans like the Toyota Sienna and Nissan Quest.
The fake wood trim on the dashboard also misses the mark.
The Freestar's base 193-horsepower 3.9-liter V6 replaces the 3.8-liter the Windstar offered. The new base engine produces slightly less power than the 3.8-liter but develops it at a lower engine speed for better performance around town.
But the Freestar Limited has lots of power. Its optional 4.2-liter V6 produces 201 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to power the minivan smoothly onto a highway or into heavy traffic pulling out of a parking lot.
The steering also strikes a very nice balance. It has enough assistance to make one-handed parking lot maneuvers easy but does not feel too light at highway speeds.
The brakes are excellent, firm and progressive enough to inspire confidence.
Quiet, capable handling
The van's road holding ability was a pleasant surprise, as the Freestar tracked smoothly around curves at higher speeds than I would have expected.
The interior also remains fairly quiet when the Freestar is in motion, allowing for conversation among the passengers of all three rows of seats.
Like the Windstar before it, the Freestar has won top ratings in various safety tests. The Limited model I tested had optional side air bags, and roof-mounted curtain air bags.
But I still think the price is very high, especially considering that the van did not have the $1,400 DVD video system and that a power tailgate will not be available until next year.
Despite the exceptional seating, I'd say wait for the inevitable rebates to kick in, or check out the lower-priced S, SE, SES and SEL models that Ford expects to account for the vast majority of Freestar sales.
2004 FORD FREESTAR LIMITED
Vehicle Type: Front-wheel-drive, seven-seat minivan
Standard equipment: antilock brakes; traction control trip computer; roof rails; power sliding doors; second-row captain's chairs; fold-flat third-row seat; power windows and locks; security system front; heated and cooled seats; leather seats; leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise controls; power adjustable side mirrors and pedals with memory; power driver's seat; AM-FM-CD-cassette stereo; rear seat audio and climate controls; driver information center
Options: Traction control; emergency brake assist; rear parking assist; power passenger seat; roof curtain air bags; roof rack crossbars; heated front seats; 17-inch alloy wheels; Homelink remote control for garage door, etc.
Engine: 4.2-liter OHV V6
Power: 201 horsepower at 4,250 r.p.m., 263 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 r.p.m.
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 16 m.p.g. city, 22 m.p.g. highway
Wheelbase: 120.8 inches
Length: Freestar: 201 inches; Monterey: 201.5 inches
Width: 76.6 inches
Height: 68.7 inches (with roof rails)
Curb Weight: 4,406 pounds
Where assembled: Oakville, Ontario
Comparative base prices (not including shipping charges)
Chevrolet Venture Plus $21,315
Chrysler Town and Country Touring $30,465
Dodge Caravan SE $21,130
Nissan Quest SL $26,740
Pontiac Montana Vision $30,065
Toyota Sienna XLE Limited $34,480
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.....