- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

If you understand that an iguana is neither fish nor fowl, you can assert that the 2005 Ford Freestyle is neither SUV nor minivan.

A good designation for it would be SUVivan.

At first glance, the brand-new Freestyle most resembles the popular Honda Pilot, a crossover sport utility vehicle that is based on a car/minivan chassis.

These types of vehicles are growing in popularity because, other things equal, they offer better handling, comfort and fuel economy than their truck-based counterparts, despite the fact that they are not as capable off-road.

Ford already had plenty of truck-based SUVs, including the Expedition and Explorer. Until now, its only car-based sport ute was the compact Escape.

So the Freestyle sets Ford off into a new galaxy, populated by such midsize and midpriced vehicles as the Pilot, the Toyota Highlander, the Nissan Murano, Mitsubishi Endeavor, Buick Rendezvous and Chrysler Pacifica.

Though they are classified by the government as trucks, all of these vehicles are car-based, with unit-body construction instead of the body-on-frame truck setup.

The Pilot, for example, was spun off the Honda Odyssey. And the Freestyle essentially is a station-wagon version of the all-new Ford Five Hundred sedan.

But despite their similarities, there are substantial differences between the Freestyle and the Pilot. The latter comes standard with all-wheel drive, while the Freestyle has front-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available as an option.

The tested Freestyle SEL, with an expected level of standard equipment, had a base sticker price of $27,040. With options that included side air bags and side-curtain air bags, leather upholstery and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, the sticker price rose to $30,340.

But that was for a front-wheel drive model. All-wheel drive would add another $1,800, up to $32,140. That puts it close to the price of a comparably equipped Pilot. If you compare both vehicles at the top of the line — all-wheel-drive Limited for the Freestyle and EX for the Pilot — the difference is just $610: $33,525 for the Freestyle and $34,135 for the Pilot.

Comparing the two, the Freestyle is longer, lighter, gets better fuel economy and has more cargo space behind the third-row seat. The Pilot is more powerful, taller, wider and has more passenger space. It also has an available navigation system.

With its third row of seats, the Pilot can seat eight. The Freestyle has seating for seven. Both vehicles have fold-flat seats in the second and third rows for extra cargo. The Freestyle also has fold-flat seats in the front row.

The Pilot’s 3.5-liter engine delivers 255 horsepower to all four wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission, whereas the tested Freestyle’s 3.0-liter engine sends 203 horsepower to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

The CVT, which uses belts and pulleys to provide a seamless transmission of power without shift points, likely is part of the reason the Freestyle bests the Pilot on fuel economy — 20 miles to the gallon in the city and 27 on the highway, compared with the Pilot’s 17 and 22. Other factors are its lower horsepower and lighter weight — 4,190 pounds to the Pilot’s 4,431 pounds.

The main reason the Freestyle should be referred to as a SUVivan is its much lower step-in and seating height. In that respect, it more resembles a minivan or a tall station wagon than an SUV. It has the standard swing-open doors of an SUV or wagon instead of sliders.

The Freestyle’s door sill is just 16 inches off the ground, compared to the Pilot’s 19 inches, and the driver’s seat bottom is 25 inches from the pavement, versus 32 inches on the Pilot.

Depending on your point of view and usage, that makes the Freestyle more or less useful. With a lower seating height, it doesn’t have that same up-high “command of the road” view so prized by SUV owners.

On the other hand, it’s much easier to get in and out — important if some of the people you ferry around are elderly or short.

With a load of passengers on board, the Freestyle’s 203-horsepower engine feels challenged. It accelerates smoothly to highway speeds, thanks to the CVT, though there’s some engine roar because of the way the CVT operates. But the pickup won’t press you back in the seat.

On the highway, it tracks true, with few steering corrections needed. The ride is quiet and comfortable, with little wind or mechanical noise even at extralegal speeds. On twisting roads, there’s minimal body lean. But this is no sports sedan, so you don’t want to push it too hard.

Up front, the seating is comfortable, thanks to large bucket seats. Second-row passengers fare almost as well, though the center position lacks the space and seat comfort of the outboard positions. The third-row seat actually can accommodate two average-sized adults.

The interior is tastefully designed, with ergonomically correct instruments and controls, and materials that fit and match nicely.

A minor problem: When lowered, the DVD screen blocks the driver’s rear view. And it cannot be controlled from the driver’s seat.

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