- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

Don’t like the idea of schlubbing around in a (gasp) minivan, but at the same time are leery of the fuel costs associated with big, honking SUVs?

Drivers needing lots of interior space can have the best of both of these vehicle worlds among the many crossovers flooding today’s automotive market. Sort of a cross between a station wagon and an SUV, a crossover is a compromise that many find appealing simply because it isn’t a minivan. Despite the fact, when loosely applied, the term crossover also embraces all-wheel-drive station wagons such as the Subaru Outback; most crossovers are so cleverly designed that their wagon DNA is obscured to the point where crossover drivers with an image problem about station wagons often don’t even realize what they are driving is nothing more than a station wagon with a thyroid problem.

It’s an issue of perception, you see. At first blush, Ford’s Freestyle looks more like an SUV than a station wagon, and certainly nothing like a minivan.

New to the market for 2005, it epitomizes the crossover genre. Borrowed from Ford’s Swedish arm Volvo, Freestyle’s platform is also shared with the Five Hundred sedan.

In fact, most of the Freestyle’s mechanicals are shared with the sedan.

Truth be told; 25 years ago Freestyle would have arrived in showrooms as the Five Hundred station wagon. In the spirit of the crossover, however, the Freestyle is distanced from the Five Hundred by name and sheetmetal.

There is nothing remotely similar in their exterior styling.

The availability of all-wheel drive is another common crossover feature. Based on Volvo engineering, the Free-style’s optional AWD system is based on the AWD architecture found in Volvo’s XC70 station wagon — one of those crossover wagons that doesn’t bother trying to disguise itself.

It’s a transparent system that automatically diverts power to the rear wheels when front-wheel slippage occurs. Designed more for foul weather than off-pavement adventures, it has no “low” setting for aggressive off-roading.

What attracts many buyers to minivans and SUVs is their hauling capacity — be it people or cargo. Freestyle’s three rows of seats can transport as many as seven persons in relative comfort. The second-row seat can either be twin captain’s chairs or the optional 60/40 split bench that adds the seventh seating position. Both fold flat (as does the front passenger seat) and recline for added comfort. Although it doesn’t possess the maximum cargo capacity of, say, the Chrysler Town and Country minivan with its Stow’n Go seating, Freestyle offers a generous amount of room to haul things, thanks to the fold-flat seats. While at 22.5 cubic feet. the area behind the third seat is a smidgen bigger than the trunk space in the Five Hundred, with the seats folded flat cargo space swells to 86.5 cubic feet. This puts it ahead of just about every midsize SUV.

Because it was all-new for 2005, Freestyle enters 2006 basically untouched. It is offered in three trim levels: SE, SEL and Limited.

Base prices begin at $25,805 for the FWD SE. All are well-equipped with four-wheel ABS and traction control, power windows/door locks, keyless remote entry, air conditioning and audio system with CD player.

Moving up to the SEL adds about $1,400 to the bottom line and includes heated outboard mirrors, an upgraded audio system with in-dash six-disc CD changer, redundant controls on the steering wheel and a message center.

The top-of-the-line $29,140 FWD Limited ups the ante with leather seating (first two rows), eight-way power driver’s seat, four-way power passenger seat, upgraded audio system with a subwoofer, and dual-zone climate control.

Based on the trim level, AWD adds between $1,800 and $2,000 to the total.

Beyond its roominess, Freestyle’s interior is neatly arranged and user friendly. Nothing very complex here; the controls are straightforward and all the gauges easy to read. The seats are comfortable, and Freestyle is built low enough to the ground that you shouldn’t have to give Grandma a boost to get her into the back seat.

Although a champ when it comes to its cargo and people capacity, Freestyle is far from the head of the pack in engine horsepower. The solitary engine offered is the 203-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 found in the Five Hundred.

While most of Freestyle’s competitors weigh less than its 4,112 pounds — with the exception of the Korean models and the Chevrolet Equinox — they have more powerful V-6s. Having said that, the Freestyle accelerates with determination — if not enthusiasm.

Getting the most out of engine production falls to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), also shared with the Five Hundred. Anyone not used to a CVT may find the absence of discernable shifting a bit disconcerting at first.

Not to worry; the sensation soon passes. Not only does the CVT translate engine output into the maximum performance possible, it uses fuel more efficiently.

The Environmental Protection Agency rates Freestyle’s fuel economy at 19 miles per gallon in town and 24 on the highway.

Freestyle and Five Hundred ride on the same suspension; however, it is tuned a tad stiffer for Freestyle to accommodate the additional weight (about 300 pounds).

The steering is quick and the handling nimble. A bit of sway can be felt in the curves, but it’s very controlled.

Capable and practical, Freestyle is a formidable competitor in the crossover arena. All of the necessary elements are there and those fold-flat seats really kick it up a notch. Looking for more versatility than the Five Hundred offers? Freestyle is the answer.

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