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Freestar keeps things simple

March 02, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

Of all the things the new 2004 Ford Freestar does right, keeping life simple and people safe might be this minivan's best attributes.

The replacement for the long-running Windstar doesn't make a huge statement. It not a radical departure from normal thinking. It doesn't have the most horsepower it its class. It doesn't even look all that different from its predecessor.

And that just might be why it will score with buyers.

Ironically, in anonymity, the Freestar is a player in a business filled with big names. Why? It's uncluttered and focused in its purpose. Mostly, it's designed to do what minivans of this world were originally intended to do: carry your family from Point A to Point B.

For 2004, Ford dropped the Windstar name to give its restyled Canadian-built minivan a fresh approach in a segment where the bar has quite suddenly been raised. Nissan unveiled its roomy new Quest this year and Toyota redesigned the rock-solid Sienna.

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How does the Freestar cope? Thankfully, there's more than a name change at work. Ford wanted to break through the clutter by un-cluttering its minivan. Gone is the Windstar's unusual, plastic-laden instrument panel that sometimes seemed a little tight for the driver. Enter a new two-tone panel that's squared off with sharp lines and a clean and crisp angular design. A first impression might even lead you to think things are downright barren inside.

From the cupholders to the instrument panel, everything is direct for the driver and easy to find. Yet its interior has an ambiance to it; the cabin is elegant and trimmed in higher-quality materials.

In this case, simple doesn't have to mean boring. This year there are plenty of intriguing extras in the five available models (base, LX, LX Sport, SE and Limited) aside from the standard features that include air conditioning, remote keyless entry, power locks, mirrors and windows.

Freestar holds up to seven people with a third-row seat that can be folded flat into the load floor or flipped around into a rearward-facing position. Ford calls it "stadium seating," and what it means is that when you park the Freestar at your favorite game you can tailgate out of the back.

The optional second-row captain's chairs slide from side to side on rails and also fold and tumble forward like those on the Ford Explorer and Expedition sport-utility vehicles for easy access to the third row.

Under the hood is a new standard 3.9-liter V-6 that makes 193 horsepower, a bit less actually than the old 3.8-liter engine. But there's also the option of a new 201-horsepower 4.2-liter V-6 that comes standard on high-end Freestars. That's less - considerably less in some cases - than what the Sienna, Odyssey and Quest offer, but the Ford provides more peak torque, which is, perhaps, more important.

Where competitors offer a five-speed automatic transmission, however, all Freestar models come with a four-speed automatic.

But, when it comes to minivans, being on the leading edge of innovation doesn't automatically guarantee a sale. So where does Ford hang its hat? Safety, of course. The company is already banking that the Freestar will go one step farther than the excellent Windstar. The Freestar has larger four-wheel disc brakes with standard anti-lock on all models and a new "panic brake assist" system to help you stop better in emergency situations (it comes on models equipped with AdvanceTrac stability control).

Freestar can also be ordered with a "safety canopy" air bag system that deploys from the headliner to cover most of the side glass area in the even of an accident. The system includes side-impact air bags for the front passengers.

As for extras, the Freestar can be ordered with a DVD entertainment system and a power liftgate will arrive later in the model year.

For now, it's all about getting there safe and sound, without fuss and muss, from Point A to Point B.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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