Freestar is the new name for Ford's minivan. It previously was the Windstar, but Ford marketers claim the minivan was so radically changed that it warranted a new name. However, the Freestar is really a Windstar, albeit a much improved one.
The improvements move the Ford Freestar closer to par with its prime competitors, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, but do not leapfrog it ahead of them.
Ford also renamed the Freestar to fit into its new naming structure. Ford's car-like vehicles start with the letter F: Focus, the upcoming Freestyle crossover vehicle and the Futura sedan. Sport-utilities will start with an E: Explorer, Expedition, Escape.
On the road, the new Ford Freestar is smooth and quiet. It glides over rough pavement, it offers responsive handling and the availability of a big V6. The Freestar's best feature is its interior ambience, an elegant cabin trimmed in high-quality materials. A clever third row that disappears into the floor, a cargo well behind the third row to contain groceries, and lots of interior storage add convenience.
Ford Freestar S ($24,460); SE ($26,245); SES ($28,065); SEL ($28,065); Limited ($32,945)
The Ford Freestar barely looks any different from the Windstar. It is based on the Windstar and, in fact, the only exterior parts that are new are the hood, grille and headlamps, front fenders and rear liftgate.
The Freestar sticks with a traditional, mainstream minivan styling formula, which generally has been more popular than radically different ones, at least until this summer's introduction of the dramatically designed Nissan Quest.
One distinguishing feature of the Freestar is an odd one. The front side windows lower below the inside portion of the door trim so when the window is fully down, the sill protrudes up. Designers say it was done to create an armrest of a comfortable height.
A power liftgate will be offered on the Freestar late in the model year.
The Freestar's interior is trimmed in high-quality materials. It looks elegant, with a delicate watch-like clock in the center dashboard as its focal point. The Freestar is a beneficiary of the increased spending Ford Motor Co. has been putting into interiors. The Freestar interior represents a dramatic upgrade over the Windstar interior.
The Freestar seats seven passengers: two in front, two in the second row and three in the third row. The second row comes standard with a bench seat. Captain's chairs, standard on the SEL and Limited, 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 extra cargo space.
While the Windstar had a bulky removable third-row seat, the Freestar has a third-row seat that folds into a well behind the seat, creating a flat floor like that in the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, and Nissan Quest. Ford's fold-flat seat may well be best in class in terms of operation. By pulling straps numbered in sequence with numbers 1, 2 and 3 clearly noted, the seat drops easily into the wheel.
Another plus is that Ford designed third-row head restraints that push deeper into the seat so they don't require removal to fold the seat, as other minivans do. The third-row seat can be dropped backwards to create seating for tailgate parties.
With the third-row seat in place for passengers, the well behind it has about 25 cubic feet of cargo space, an extremely handy spot for groceries. No more melons rolling about. The cargo volume expands to 135 cubic feet when the third-row seat is folded and second-row seats are removed (possible but clumsy for one person).
The downside of Ford's third-row seat, however, is its short height compared with the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. As a result, even people with relatively normal length legs will feel like their knees sit too high. The seats works fine for small children.
Seat comfort throughout the Freestar, as was the case with the Windstar, is not exceptional. The second-row captain's chairs seems too narrow. The driver's seat also seems designed for a slim person.
Storage space is abundant throughout the Freestar. It includes bins in the rear sliding doors for books and toys. Front doors have double map pockets, one above the other. On the dash is a covered storage compartment for small items like cell phones. The drivers' 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. Some of the beverage holders, particularly those in the far back are awkwardly positioned, however. Well positioned and well built are sturdy cupholders that fold down from the sides of the second-row captain's chairs. If kicked, as they likely will be, they snap back into storage against the seats.
Beneath the Ford Freestar's mildly revised skin is the same front-wheel-drive architecture used for the Windstar. But many improvements have been made.
Two engines are available. The standard 3.9-liter V6 generates 193 horsepower and 245 lbs.-ft. of torque. Optional is a 4.2-liter V6 that delivers 201 horsepower and 263 lbs.-ft of torque. Neither engine matches the horsepower of the new Nissan Quest, rated at 240 horsepower, nor the redesigned Toyota Sienna at 230 horsepower. Torque is competitive, however. (Torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up steep grades, so torque is important.) Freestar's 4.2-liter V6 is the largest displacement for a minivan and is likely the best choice for highway cruising, passing on freeways and towing.
The automatic transmission shifts smoothly. All Freestars come with a four-speed automatic transmission. Ford claims consumer research showed minivan buyers didn't care whether their automatic is a four-speed or five-speed, which other manufacturers offer, as long as the shifts were smooth.
The Freestar is extremely quiet. It's on par with the new Toyota Sienna. The only exception is that the engine roars a tad too loudly and truck-like under hard acceleration.
The Freestar's ride is smooth. It glided over the rough pavement of Michigan's Interstate 94. Steering is much more responsive than the Windstar.
While the Freestar is much improved from the Windstar, it doesn't feature much innovation above and beyond its competitors. Still it is a solid performer and former Windstar owners will appreciate the improvements.