The Ford Freestyle is what has become known as a crossover vehicle. More than a station wagon, but not quite a sport utility, the Freestyle is a successful example of a crossover. The Freestyle combines space-conscious and people-friendly packaging with a modern powertrain that delivers performance and efficiency.
Three rows of seats yield six-passenger, or even seven-passenger capacity. Its 3.0-liter V6 delivers good performance, while its continuously variable transmission eases engine load and smoothes the drive. All-wheel drive is available for owners who want all-weather capability. The other models use front-wheel drive.
Critics have said that the Freestyle is simply the station wagon version of the new Ford Five Hundred sedan. Technically, they're right. Yet many have found the Freestyle inexplicably offers a better driving experience than the Five Hundred, and it's certainly more practical.
The Freestyle is well worth a look for shoppers tired of the everyday vehicle, yet also tired of climbing up into and jumping down out of today's SUVs, and willing to explore something new and slightly different.
The Freestyle was launched as a 2005 model so there are relatively few changes for '06. An optional navigation system is now available for the Limited model.
Ford Freestyle SE ($25,105); SE AWD $26,955; SEL ($26,505); SEL AWD ($28,355); Limited ($28,530); Limited AWD ($30,580)
The Ford Freestyle is built on the same platform as the Ford Five Hundred sedan and share much of the same hardware. Both were launched as all-new models for 2005.
Styling cues make the Freestyle look more like a Ford Escape, however. From all angles, the styling suggests a sport utility: the upright front end, the tall side glass, the hefty C-pillar, the fender blisters, the rear liftgate, and the big rear bumper cover.
The Freestyle's similarities to the Five Hundred become more apparent when the two are parked together. The Freestyle is just an inch shorter in overall length than the Five Hundred and the wheelbase, the distance between the front and rear wheels, is identical. Only in height is there a marked difference. The Freestyle is eight inches taller, at 68.3 inches, than the Five Hundred, part of which is a result of the Freestyle's added ground clearance. The Freestyle has eight inches of ground clearance versus five inches for the Five Hundred.
The Freestyle may not offer the space of a minivan, but it offers more space than a compact SUV. It falls between the two in terms of size. The Freestyle is two feet longer than a Ford Escape, and has a 10-inch longer wheelbase. And the Escape is only about an inch taller. The Freestyle is seven inches longer than the popular Ford Explorer, though its wheelbase is about the same. The Explorer is taller by four inches, which helps explain why the Freestyle's seating position is 5.5 inches lower than the Explorer's seating position.
The Ford Freestyle offers lots of cargo space and seats up to six passengers, seven if the second-row bench seat is ordered. Fitting three rows of seats in a vehicle this size required some compromises, of course, but the good outweighs the bad.
The front seats are decently bolstered, with adequate thigh support. However, the lower back and rear bottom portions didn't offer enough support on a drive from Milwaukee along primarily rural roads down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Chicago.
The Freestyle offers roomy accommodations for passengers in the second row, especially with the available twin bucket seats in the second row. The second-row seats tend more toward utilitarian than coddling, with flat seat bottoms and backs. With the second-row bench alternative, the center seat bottom and back cushions are above grade, but there's even less lateral support than what's provided by the bucket seats.
Ford says the third-row seat was designed to comfortably accommodate a 6-foot, 1-inch male. Indeed, headroom back there is commendable, thanks to a roofline that's several inches higher over the rear seats than at the windshield, a styling feat deftly masked by the angular C-pillar and roof rack. But tall third-row passengers will find their legs quite a bit more articulated and their knees closer to their chests than elsewhere in the Freestyle's cabin.
The Freestyle offers great versatility with split-folding third-row seats, an available 60/40 second-row bench seat and a fold-flat front passenger seatback. That fold-flat front passenger seat allows hauling objects up to 10 feet long, like a surf board or a ladder, depending on the weekend's activities, while hauling passengers on the left side.
Freestyle offers lots of cargo space. Fold the seats down and the Freestyle offers 85.2 cubic feet of cargo room, more than a Grand Cherokee (67.4) or a six-passenger Pacifica (79.5), though a five-passenger Pacifica offers slightly more space (92.7). Caesar the 170-pound mastiff discovered he had more headroom in the Freestyle than he had in a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and getting in and out was easier.
Storage is plentiful, including as many as a dozen cup holders, map pockets on all four doors and rear quarter panels, magazine pouches on the back side of the front seatbacks, the usual center console and a modest glove box. There's a deep well behind the third row of seats, which the seats occupy when collapsed. And there's a sunglasses holder incorporated into the overhead console. That overhead unit also houses the conversation mirror, a.k.a. the kid spy glass, although this combo feature gets displaced by the optional moonroof. Second- and third-row seats get reading lights.
The dash design is quiet and uncluttered, assembled from few bits and pieces, promising minimal squeaks and rattles as the Freestyle ages. Framed by the steering wheel are large, round, easy-to-scan, white-on-black (the Limited gets black-on-white) tachometer and speedometer, between which are the fuel and engine water temperature gauges and, on the SEL and Limited, a digital information display, all beneath a hood shading them from midday glare. At the far ends of the dash are two round air conditioning registers, identical to two atop the center stack. Although all four vents look as if they rotate in their receptacles, they don't, adjusting only side-to-side and up-and-down, and only the two outboard registers close completely. To the left of the steering column are the headlight and dash light controls, and when ordered the rocker switch for the adjustable pedals. The high-beam, turn indicator and windshield/backlight wiper/washer levers sprout from the left and right side of the column, respectively.
At finger-tip level in the center stack is the stereo control head, for the most part ergonomic, except for the tuning function, which requires either enduring an interminable scan/seek process or depres
Driving a car with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, takes some getting used to. There are no shifts, no gear changes, up or down. Instead, the driver steps on the gas, the engine speeds up, and a moment later the car begins to move. The engine then maintains about the same, seemingly elevated rpm while the car accelerates to the desired speed, at which point the driver eases off the gas to let the engine slow to where the car keeps moving at that speed. Of course, as elevations change and traffic ebbs and flows, the car's speed changes, as does the engine's, but not always to the same degree, and definitely not as expected with a traditional automatic transmission.
All of this is exactly as planned. The goal of a CVT is to allow the engine to spend as much of its operating time as possible in a rev range that maintains optimum fuel efficiency and generates minimum emissions. The Freestyle certainly delivers in terms of usable power and fuel economy.
In fuel economy, the Freestyle rates an EPA-estimated 20/27 City/Highway mpg with front-wheel drive, 19/24 mpg with all-wheel drive. By comparison, a front-drive Pacifica gets 17/23 mpg with its 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V6.
Stand on the throttle and you may experience some torque steer in the Freestyle, a slight, side-to-side tugging of the steering wheel. This occurs not only in the front-wheel-drive Freestyle, which is not uncommon, but also in the all-wheel-drive variation, which is a little disappointing. Passing is more relaxed with a CVT, as there's no immediate kickdown to a lower, more aggressive gear.
The Freestyle does a reasonably good job of keeping noise out of the cabin. At steady-state cruise, powertrain sounds fade to a whisper, but pavement slap from the tires is clearly audible and some wind noise leaks in around the side windows at freeway speeds.
Commendably, the Freestyle's wide stance gives it reassuring stability around high speed curves and on winding roads. And there's little of the body lean and occupant head toss associated with SUVs. There's a noticeable susceptibility to cross winds, however, which is no surprise given the Freestyle's uprightness.
Ride and handling are reasonably good. The steering returns good on-center feel and turn-in is responsive. Braking is solid, although not entirely linear.
The Ford Freestyle offers many of the advantages of a sport-utility, with lots of cargo room and a roomy cabin capable of seating six or seven passengers. Getting in and out is easier than it is with an SUV, yet the Freestyle's elevated position gives the driver a good view of the road ahead. And because it's based on a car, the Freestyle rides smoother and handles better than an SUV, and gets better fuel economy.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from the Great Lakes area.