The Ford Freestar is a capable minivan that performs well and offers all the latest safety features. Packages and pricing have been simplified for 2006 models, and prices have been lowered.
The Freestar is a solid performer, but it isn't the sharpest saw in the shed. It's now in its third year since being redesigned and is outclassed by newer entries. However, the J.D. Power and Associates research firm has rated Freestar's overall quality and mechanical quality better than most. It's better than any previous Ford minivan, so if you liked the Windstar, you'll love the Freestar.
Freestar is well-equipped to do minivan things. It can haul seven passengers and has a deep well behind the third row that's perfect for securely stowing a week's worth of groceries. Fold the third-row seat into the floor, and the Freestar holds four passengers and offers a big, flat cargo area behind the seats. Also, the third row can flip around to function as a tailgate seat, a neat trick for parking lot parties. A power rear liftgate and dual power sliding doors are available. Tow ratings of up to 3,500 pounds are possible, enough to handle personal watercraft, motorcycles, or other trailer toys.
On the highway, the Freestar is smooth and quiet. It glides over rough pavement. It's easy to drive, with responsive handling and a big, powerful V6 engine. It doesn't feel as refined as the best and newest of the minivans, however.
Freestar's strongest suit is safety: Freestar earned five stars in the government's (NHTSA's) frontal impact crash testing, and is a Best Pick for frontal offset crashes by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Freestar received a five-star rating from NHTSA in driver and passenger front impact as well as passenger side impact. It received a four-star rating in driver side impact and roll-over resistance.
Dual-stage driver and front-passenger air bags come standard and are designed to deploy at full or partial power depending on the severity of the crash. Ford's optional Safety Canopy can help protect against head injuries in a rollover or side impact; Ford's system is designed to offer protection to passengers sitting on the outboard sides of all three rows. Freestar's seat belts use pretensioners and energy-management retractors to improve their effectiveness and reduce the chance of belt-related injuries.
To help drivers avoid crashing in the first place, the Freestar comes standard with anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution. A tire-pressure monitor is standard and self-sealing tires are available. The optional AdvanceTrac electronic stability control helps drivers maintain control when swerving to avoid something or when entering a slippery corner too fast.
Ford Freestar SE ($23,655); SEL ($26,615); Limited ($29,575)
The Ford Freestar is based on the old Windstar, and looks it. The only obvious differences are the hood, grille, headlamps, front fenders, and rear liftgate, which pick up styling cues from the Ford trucks and SUVs.
Freestar sticks with traditional, mainstream minivan styling. Freestar does have one odd, distinguishing feature, however: The front side windows drop below the inside portion of the door trim which, say the Freestar's designers, remains at a comfortable arm-rest height. The optional rear spoiler looks sporty.
The Ford Freestar seats seven passengers: two in front, two in the second row and three in the third row. Standard seating in the second row is a bench. Captain's chairs are also available, and they slide horizontally on rails. They also fold and tumble forward, like those on the Ford Explorer and Expedition, for easy access to the third row, or for extra cargo space.
The third-row seat folds into a well in the floor behind it, creating a flat load platform. Ford's fold-flat third-row seat may be the best in terms of ease of operation. Pull the clearly numbered straps in sequence, and the seat drops easily into the well. Ford designed the third-row head restraints to retract into the seat, so you don't have to pull them out before you fold the seat, as you do on many minivans. The third-row bench seat can also be dropped backward to create seating for tailgate parties.
With the third-row seat in place for passengers, there's more than 25 cubic feet of storage space; the well behind the seat provides a good spot for groceries or sports equipment. Freestar's cargo volume expands to 130 cubic feet when the third-row seat is folded and the second-row seats are removed (possible, but clumsy, for one person). The downside of Ford's third row, however, is its short seat height compared with its counterparts in the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. As a result, adults will feel like their knees are too high. It works best for small children.
In fact, seat comfort throughout the Freestar is not exceptional. The driver's seat seems to have been designed exclusively for the fashionably slim. (If you are fashionably slim, you may like that.) And the rake adjustment on the six-way power driver's seat is manual, less convenient than power. Likewise, the second-row captain's chairs feel narrow.
Overall, the interior is elegant, with a delicate watch-like clock in the center dashboard as its focal point. Ford spent more money on the Freestar interior, and it's a dramatic upgrade over the Windstar.
Audio and climate controls are easy to reach. The black plastic controls could be prettier, but work well enough. The manual heating and air conditioning controls are rudimentary, but easy to operate. The available electronic climate control isn't aesthetically pleasing, but works well and is our preference. The system controls three zones, driver, passenger, and rear. Rear air conditioning is useful for cooling kids and pets on hot days, a very valuable feature.
Storage space is abundant. Bins in the sliding doors offer a place for books and toys. Front doors have double map pockets, one above the other. A covered storage compartment provides space for small items like cell phones. The driver's seat on the Limited model has a kangaroo pouch at the front of the cushion.
The Freestar has numerous cupholders, including front door holders for 20-ounce bottles. Sturdy cupholders that fold down from the sides of the second-row captain's chairs are convenient and well-built. If kicked, as they likely will be, they snap back into their storage position against the seats. However, the beverage holders in the far-back are awkwardly positioned.
Two engines are available in the Freestar. The 3.9-liter V6 that comes standard on the SE generates 193 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque and gets an EPA-rated 18/23 mpg City/highway. The 4.2-liter V6 that comes with the SEL and Limited delivers 201 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque, yet surrenders only 1 mpg to the smaller engine. Freestar's larger 4.2-liter V6 is the largest in any minivan, and is likely the better choice for highway cruising, passing on freeways, and light towing.
The Freestar's torque (the force you need for merging on the freeway or climbing steep grades) is competitive with both engines when compared with the 242 pound-feet of torque from the Toyota Sienna and the Nissan Quest. However neither Ford engine matches the Nissan's 240 horsepower nor the Toyota's 230 horsepower. So the Freestar engine won't be as responsive at higher speeds.
The four-speed automatic transmission that comes in all Freestar models shifts smoothly and quickly.
The Freestar is extremely quiet, incorporating thick front windows, a noise-absorbing dash panel, and sound-blocking construction. Nevertheless, the overhead-valve engine sounds truck-like under hard acceleration, making it seem a little less refined than some of the competition.
The Freestar's ride is smooth, and can handle even poorly-maintained highways. Steering is much more responsive than in the old Windstar. It leans a bit in corners, but handling is predictable. Big four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and EBD are standard, and the brakes are easy to modulate for nice, smooth stops.
The Ford Freestar is a solid minivan available with the latest in safety equipment and engineering. It's big and powerful, much improved over the old Windstar. It doesn't offer all the bells and whistles (like all-wheel drive and navigation) nor does it feel as refined as some of the competition, but it's a solid performer.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Michelle Krebs filed the original report, with editor Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.