Ford Windstar is one of the quickest minivans on the road. Its strong, 200-horsepower V6 delivers quick acceleration performance. Among the largest of the so-called minivans, Windstar offers a versatile interior that can carry up to seven people or big loads of cargo. It comes with dual sliding doors, and can be trimmed with video systems and other options to satisfy any taste.
For eight straight years, the Windstar has earned the Federal government's best crash-test rating: five stars each for driver and front passenger. With its optional side-impact air bags, Windstar achieves a double five-star rating in the government's new side-impact tests as well. Safety is improved further for 2003, as the Windstar gets Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability enhancement system. AdvanceTrac detects skidding and actively corrects the Windstar's heading by selectively applying individual brakes and/or reducing engine power. That could make the difference between a close call and a collision on a rain-slicked or ice-covered road. Additional refinements for 2003 focus on reducing noise.
The current Windstar is nearing the end of its run, and an all-new Windstar is on the horizon.
LX ($22,710), LX Standard ($26,495); LX Deluxe ($27,580), SE ($29,020), SEL ($31,750), Limited ($34,160)
Ford Windstar benefits from refinements for 2003 designed to reduce noise. Aerodynamic mirrors, new beltline moldings, and new B-pillar appliques are designed to reduce wind turbulence. Thicker side glass in the front doors and improved sealing in the front bulkhead further insulate the Windstar's driver and passengers from wind noise.
Ford Windstar's styling hasn't changed much since its 1995 introduction, but it still looks contemporary. Windstar's front end received a minor redesign in 2001, and the LX Standard and Deluxe acquired driving lights in 2002. For 2003, all Windstars sport body-colored bumpers.
The sliding doors neatly hide the tracks below the lower edge of the rear side window, instead of gouging them out of the quarter-panel sheetmetal. This gives the Windstar a less utilitarian, more upscale look. Power operation for the dual sliding doors is optional on the SE, and standard on the SEL and Limited.
With the power-operated doors, you can open the Windstar by remote control, using a button on the key fob. This can be real benefit when you've got an armload and it's raining. It's also nice for folks who find opening and closing heavy doors a bit strenuous. The one shortcoming of the power doors is that they move more slowly than most people could slide the door by hand. Nonetheless, kids love the power doors. A safety feature automatically stops the door should some errant body part block its path. And an industry-first warning strobe alerts the driver when the sliding doors are opening.
Unlike some of its domestic competitors, Windstar is not available in a short-wheelbase model. Windstar comes in one size only, and that size is relatively large, comparable to the Dodge Grand Caravan, the Chrysler Town & Country, and the Honda Odyssey.
Ford Windstar is as large as the largest minivans, so there's lots of room inside. Kids love the spacious feel, while adults appreciate the generous legroom and headroom, especially in the center bucket seats. The nicely designed and substantial dashboard wraps around the driver, positioning the radio and climate controls within easy reach. Two cup holders are attached to a tray that slides out; spring-loaded sides allow them to accommodate a variety of containers. A convenient wide-angle mirror helps the driver keep an eye on what's going on in the rear seats.
We had trouble getting comfortable in the SEL. We found the front seats in flat, with little side bolstering. That made getting in and out easy, but left us with no side support for going around corners.
Some people like center consoles in minivans, others find them inconvenient, as it makes it difficult for adults to walk between the seats and into the rear of the vehicle. (Of course, it doesn't upset kids, who just clamber over it.) SEL and LX Deluxe come with the center console on the floor between the two front seats; LX and SE models don't have it, unless it is ordered as an option ($155).
Pedals are power adjustable, a genuinely useful feature Moving the pedals closer to the seat at the touch of a button is beneficial for drivers with short legs. This allows them to sit farther from the steering wheel, for better driving position and to avoid potential injury from the airbag.
Center-row seats are buckets in SE, SEL and Limited. We found them heavy and awkward to remove. LX buyers can choose a center-row bench, or buckets ($745). The bench seat can be positioned left or right, for your choice of either curbside or street-side access to the third-row seat. (However, once the seat is shifted to one side, third-seat access from that side becomes awkward.) The bench seat reclines and rolls forward and back, for more versatile cargo loading and easier removal.
The third-row seat is a bench on all models, and has seat belts for all three people. Like the second-row bench it rides on small rollers that make it slightly easier to remove. It weighs about 100 pounds, which makes removal a two-person job. Once back in the van, it moves seven inches fore and aft on its track, allowing more rear luggage space, or more rear-seat legroom, depending on need. However, moving it all the way forward exposes the seat tracks, which are greasy for cargo and not friendly to dogs.
The rear bench can also be moved to the second-row seat's attachment points, to provide seating for five and cavernous luggage space. That feature adds to the versatility of Windstars equipped with second-row buckets.
The third-row seatback folds down to provide a flat table and more cup holders. Rear climate controls come standard (except in the base model), a great feature especially on hot days for children and pets. SE, SEL, and Limited come standard with rear audio controls as well, allowing kids to play cassettes in the rear while adults listen to the radio up front.
A handy feature for entertaining restless rug rats is the Auto Vision Entertainment System ($995), consisting of a VHS tape player and a 6.4-inch LCD video screen that folds down from the overhead console. There are even ports for video games. It's a real boon for long trips: You may never hear Are we there yet? again. The system includes a pair of headphones, so people up front do not have to listen to Land Before Time 32, or whatever else is screening in the rear cabin.
For busy adults, SEL and Limited models feature an electronic Message Center, which is a small voice recorder attached to the driver's sun visor. It can be used to record notes and other ideas that might come to mind while driving.
The tire pressure monitoring system that comes standard is a good idea: The warning light came on while we were driving our Windstar and, sure enough, the right rear tire was about 5 pounds low. Unfortunately
With its big V6, the Windstar is one of the quickest minivans available. It delivers strong acceleration, and has plenty of power for safe passing even with a full load of passengers. For the most part, the Windstar's powertrain performs smoothly. The V6 sounds raucous at high rpm, however, and the transmission shifts abruptly at times.
Windstar's steering is about right, with some feedback to let the driver know what the front tires are doing. It feels stable at speed. And the ride is smooth, thanks to the longest wheelbase of any minivan. Windstar rides more comfortably than sport-utility vehicles. The suspension is soft, however. It allows the Windstar to wallow in corners and lets the nose dive when you use the Windstar's brakes. Also, the brakes seemed unimpressive.
LX Deluxe, SE, SEL and Limited come with fatter tires (225/60R16) and bigger wheels (16-inch), which help improve handling and stability. Yet this package adds little noise or ride harshness.
We recommend getting the optional AdvanceTrac, an electronic vehicle stability system that uses both engine management and the anti-lock brakes to help the driver maintain control on slippery roads or other extreme conditions. Cycling 200 times per second, the AdvanceTrac computer checks the Windstar's road behavior against the driver's steering input to be certain that the van is going where the driver wants it to go. If it is sliding or skidding, then AdvanceTrac reduces engine power and/or applies the brakes individually to help guide the Windstar back to the path that the driver intended.
Another useful device is the reverse sensing system, which is standard on the Limited and part of the Family Security package ($600) on SE and SEL. Rearward visibility is limited in the Windstar, and distance is difficult to judge because the back of the vehicle is such a long way from the driver. The reverse sensor measures the distance between the van and any object behind it (such as a wall, a parked car, or a child). A beeper sounds at an increasing pace as the van backs toward the object. Besides its safety benefits, this feature speeds up parallel parking on tight streets, nice for those times when your passengers are scurrying into the restaurant or theater. It enhances safety when backing up in crowded parking lots. It's amazing how often people will walk behind or drive up and stop behind a big vehicle when it's backing up and this feature will alert you to that.
Ford Windstar offers lots of power, lots of room, and the availability of most of the latest minivan features. It scores well in government crash testing and offers side-impact airbags as an option. New active safety features can help you avoid an accident in the first place. Its versatile seating arrangement works well.
The Windstar is a dated product, however, and lacks the sophistication of the newest minivans. Its brakes are unimpressive and its soft suspension wallows in corners and dives under hard braking. An all-new Windstar is on the horizon. Until then, look for deals on the 2003 models.