- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

After selling more than a million Windstars during its six-year life cycle, Ford is updating the trusty Windstar. But this time it’s more than just a face lift — it’s a name change as well. When Ford’s family-sized minivan goes on sale this fall, its new name will be Freestar.

So why invest valuable resources to improve a vehicle that competes in a segment that many say is dead or dying? According to Steve Lyons, Ford Division president, the total minivan market is about 1 million units per year. Of that, Ford sold 142,000 Windstars last year and expects to do as well, or even better, this year with the new Freestar.

Although it’s nothing like Ford’s pickup-truck numbers, that’s still a sizeable piece of business and Ford isn’t about to give it up to the competition. Mr. Lyons says that though many younger buyers are giving up their minivans to move into SUVs or crossovers, older buyers, many of whom are “empty nesters,” are beginning to see the advantages of the minivan. Easy entry/exit and flexibility are frequently mentioned as reasons to switch to a minivan.

At first glance, the Freestar doesn’t look much different from the Windstar it replaces, but a close look under the skin tells a different story. Now, there are two engines available. A 3.9-liter 193-horsepower V-6 engine replaces Windstar’s 3.8-liter version as standard equipment.

Also available is a new 4.2-liter V-6 that’s good for 201 horsepower and 263 foot-pounds of torque. Ford claims this new engine has the most torque of any engine in the minivan segment. Both engines have new liquid-filled engine mounts to keep engine vibration from being felt in the cabin — it’s a minor thing, but it adds a feeling of refinement. The four-speed automatic transmission has been tweaked for smoother, less-noticeable shifts.

According to company sources, Ford has tripled its investment in interior design and development, and Freestar’s all-new interior is a direct result of this effort. Seating is a big part of the story with the introduction of a “flip and fold” third-row seat, similar to those in Honda’s Odyssey and Toyota’s Sienna. When the third-row seat is stowed in the floor and the second-row seats are removed, the rear cargo area expands to more than 134 cubic feet. Freestar’s third-row seat also can be flipped into a rearward-facing position for use while parked during picnic or tailgating activities.

Safety hasn’t taken a back seat either. The standard personal safety system uses passenger weight-sensing technology to turn off the front-passenger air bag when the seat is empty or occupied by a small child. The system also tailors the response of the restraint systems to particular crash factors. Ford-developed side-curtain air bags deploy from the headliner to cover most of the glass area along all three rows of seats. In a rollover, they deploy on both sides of the vehicle and remain inflated longer to help protect occupants from multiple impacts and the risk of ejection. Front-seat occupants also benefit from seat-mounted side-impact air bags.

An available stability-control system helps drivers avoid skids, and a reverse sensing system detects objects in the rear of the vehicle and assists getting distances right when parking. Also, adjustable pedals allow drivers to move their seat farther away from the air bag while still maintaining a comfortable driving position.

And if you want something a little more upscale than a Freestar, the Lincoln Mercury Division might have just the vehicle for you. New for 2004, the Monterey minivan incorporates the same basic features as the Freestar, but has distinctive interior and exterior styling that uses unique, attractive materials. It’s designed to compete head-on with Chrysler’s Town and Country minivan, and should have what it takes to attract older buyers.

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