Every automaker has to play in the important minivan market. To lose here is to lose big.
Ford, with its Windstar model of the past few years, lost big.
The Windstar did not compete well head-to-head with minivan pioneer Chrysler's products. It performed especially poorly compared to highly developed models from Toyota and Honda.
Auto Rule No. 1: If you have a winner, you enhance the model. If you have a loser, you rename it.
Say hello in 2004 to the Ford Freestar, with five configurations to suit every pocketbook. Ford hype says it's "all new." A reality check reveals improved interior ambience, class-leading safety features, decent horsepower and great torque, but nothing that leaps the seven-passenger Freestar ahead of competitors. Many changes amount to catch up.
Ford, for instance, finally offers a third-row bench seat that folds and drops into the floor, increasing the size of the cargo area. Honda pioneered this years ago. The Ford system-a good one-has three straps that are pulled in succession to fold, clip and flop the seat. The three rear head restraints atop the seat don't even require removal. But the floor that results when the seat is dropped has a distinct slant from rear to front. Place anything round back there and it'll roll forward to greet the driver.
Where the Freestar shines is occupant safety. The Limited model-decked out with options and stickering at $38,000-has every expected safety feature and adds full-length head curtains that are triggered when a rollover is sensed by onboard computers. No other minivan offers this. Before we shout bravo, however, note that the Freestar performed poorly in bumper crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Those five-mile-per-hour bumps did more than $1,000 damage front and rear.
From the outside, the new Freestar looks much like the old Windstar. Restyling was not really necessary, Ford explains, because looks are not high on a minivan buyer's wish list. (We'll see how the world reacts to the brazen new styling of the 2004 Nissan Quest minivan.)
But restyling might have helped this also-ran. The plump, nose-to-the-ground Freestar still resembles a potbellied pig.
It's inside that Ford designers did their best work. The old Windstar was utilitarian in every respect. Its interior was suitably designed to take spilled Kool-Aid and squashed M&Ms in stride. The interior of the 2004 Freestar Limited is posh as an Audi. Leather seats, two-tone styling, cupholders galore, rear audio and climate controls, even a DVD player if desired. It's a much-improved environment, from the standpoints of both usability and ergonomics.
Freestars begin at $23,775 for a base S model with a 3.9-liter V6, topping out at a base price of $32,945 for the Limited with a 4.2-liter, 201-horsepower V6. All have a four-speed automatic transmission and are front-wheel drive only.
Options such as power sliding side doors, remote-control garage-door openers and the like will take pricing much, much higher. Our tested Limited had almost everything except the DVD player.
Notably missing and not available is a navigation system or satellite radio. Also still not offered, but promised later this model year, is a power-operated rear liftgate. Liftover height to stash items in the cargo area was conveniently low, but women reaching far into the Freestar to drop that third-row seat may want to check first to see who's watching.
Moms particularly will like the easy access to the second-row seats, which are captain's chairs in the case of the Limited, a two-person bench for the other models. Infant seats, or infants, are relatively easy to put into place-unlike the gymnastic contortions necessary with many cars, sport utilities and some minivans.
Fastening and unfastening the seat belts is still a difficult job, however. No manufacturer has yet made this essential task easy. Not long ago, a news story recounted children dying in a vehicle fire because the belt releases holding their child seats in place could not be reached by would-be rescuers. Please, if a vehicle like the Freestar can have one button that locks and unlocks all doors, and it does, can't we have one button that releases all seat belts?
Note that this criticism is not aimed solely at the Freestar. No manufacturer pays sufficient attention to fireproofing its vehicles or making escape easy.
But much attention has been paid to providing occupants of the Freestar with every luxury and convenience they might need. There are two power outlets, for instance, up front, another for the second-row grouping and yet another in the cargo bay. A pop-down clothes hanger can be found in the ceiling on the driver's side above the seat. The front seats have magazine holders on their backs. The ceiling has air-conditioning vents that seem lifted from a commercial airliner.
The remote control key fob has buttons to lock and unlock the doors and two more buttons for power operation of the sliding side doors. I tested those power doors by putting my body in the closing path-and the doors reversed on contact as they should, but the impact was more forceful than expected. Ford needs to lighten that impact-before-reversing so small children won't be knocked down or bruised.
Much attention has been given, Ford says, to quieting the interior of the Freestar. It's not noisy, but far from silent at interstate speed. The culprit at speed remains the tires; under acceleration, the engine is noisy. To deaden sound, Ford employs sandwiched material in the wheel wells. That pays off for those inside a Freestar, but does nothing to quiet the environment, where tire noise is a constant pollutant. Solutions are available if automakers will adopt them.
The Freestar seems a good minivan and will likely satisfy those who choose it. But Ford is playing catch-up. Trouble is, Ford is trying to catch a moving target. The minivan, sport utility and truck worlds are afire with innovation. And catch-up might not be enough today.
Veteran journalist and auto editor Robert C. Bowden (firstname.lastname@example.org) produces The Car Place, a Forbes "Best of the Web" selection.