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2004 Ford Freestar replaces the venerable Windstar minivan.

Cupholders are located on sides of mid-row seats.

2004 Ford Freestar Road Test
What's a Freestar?

It's Ford's all-new replacement for the old Windstar minivan, and it's better in almost every way, except for the unnecessary new name.

By Bill Roebuck

Ford has finally caught up with the makers of imported minivans with its all-new Freestar for 2004, which arrived in dealership showrooms mid-October 2003. Highlights
2004 Ford Freestar
Category: Minivan
Seats: 7
Engines: 3.9-litre, 200-hp V6; 4.2-litre, 200-hp V6
Fuel Econ.-Cdn:  Litres per 100 km, city/hwy: 14.4/9.6
Price (Cdn): S (base) $27,195; Limited $43,695. Freight $1,025.
Pros: Emphasis on safety features, flat folding 3rd row seat, quiet ride, made in Canada.
Cons: Strong effort needed to raise 3rd row seat; unexciting external appearance.
Freestars are built in Canada, at the Oakville Assembly Plant, which also builds a sister minivan, the Mercury Monterey (which is not sold in Canada).

Even though it's an all-new design, Ford isn't taking any chances with its new minivan. The company had built an enviable reputation for safety with its previous model, the Windstar, and it seems to have spared no effort -- nor heavy steel reinforcements -- to ensure the Freestar will get top ratings in government crash testing.

The Freestar has smart air bags up front, a stronger structure and other attributes that should allow it to attain five-star crash test ratings for front and side impacts. Also available are adjustable pedals, self-sealing tires, smart locks and tire-pressure monitoring.

New is an optional Safety Canopy side curtain air bag system designed to unfold in a crash in such a way that even a child sleeping against the side window would be properly protected. The system also features an innovative rollover sensor that can maintain the air bag's inflation for up to six seconds for added protection.

A Canadian Driving Package is available on the Freestar for $800 (it's standard equipment on Limited models). It includes Ford's AdvanceTrac stability enhancement system, an Emergency Brake Assist feature, a Reverse Sensing System, and all-speed traction control.

New, larger four-wheel disc brakes have standard anti-lock control and electronic brake-force distribution to provide shorter stopping distances, improved resistance to fade, faster response and better pedal feel. New liquid-filled lower control arm bushings help isolate any brake roughness from the passenger compartment.

Models with the optional AdvanceTrac stability enhancement system also have a panic brake assist feature that can detect sudden emergency braking and help the driver apply maximum braking force more quickly.

AdvanceTrac uses seven different sensors to monitor steering wheel angle, throttle position, wheel speed, the vehicle's yaw rate and other factors every seven milliseconds to determine if the vehicle is following the driver's intended path. If the system detects that the car is about to oversteer, it applies a braking impulse to the outside front wheel to help the driver stabilize the car. Or, if the system detects that the front of the car is drifting to the outside of a turn (understeer), it applies a similar braking impulse to the inside rear wheel. The system also will reduce engine power, if necessary.

The new Ford minivan also has a fold-flat third row bench seat, though that feature has been offered for years in the Honda Odyssey minivan, and is already available in the Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna.

Ford betters the competitor's third-row design in a couple of areas -- you don't need to remove the head restraints to fold away the third row. A so-called shingled design lets them hulk down low and out of the way -- and also keeps them from obstructing the driver's rear view when there are no passengers in the back. The third row seat can also be unfolded to make a reverse-facing bench seat for tailgate parties or picnics.

To ensure product quality, several rounds of pre-production "test builds" were done during the spring and summer. Assembly line workers were encouraged to point out ways to improve how they performed their jobs. The test builds resulted in hundreds of changes to address their concerns, from re-routing wiring harnesses to improving the fit between trim pieces.

The 2004 Freestar is available in five trim levels: S, SE, SES (Sport), SEL and Limited. Prices range from $27,195 for the S to $43,695 for the Limited. The levels reflect various interior amenities and distinguishing front, rear and side design treatments, though we think the exterior differences are subtle. Two V6 engines are offered -- a 3.9-litre and a 4.2-litre. The 3.9-litre produces 200 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque, while the 4.2 produces 201 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque.

Our comments are based on our test drive of a Limited model with the larger engine.

The 4.2-litre is smooth and quiet, only getting a bit noisy on hard acceleration. The steering is a big change from the Windstar. Gone is the heavy truck feel. It's now lighter and more precise. A new twist-beam rear axle with a Panhard rod is used for precise tracking, and the result is excellent. There's no wandering within your lane, even on roads with a steep camber.

Despite the heftiness of the 1,935-kg (4,275-lb) Freestar, acceleration is more than adequate and shifting is seamless. The four-speed automatic transmission shifted up and down with no noticeable jumps between gears. Also, improvements to its design have more than doubled the life of the automatic transmission, according to Ford. It has been designed with fast-acting hydraulics, made possible by simplifying the convoluted passages that execute gear changes. It helps the transmission shift more quickly and smoothly. In addition, a new torque converter provides better initial acceleration from a stop, although the minivan still has a heavy feel to the gas pedal.

That gas pedal feel gives the sensation that the Freestar is slightly sluggish. That's just an illusion, as performance is aided by the fact that 90% of its torque is available at just 1,500 rpm.

The suspension also has been beefed up, with new MacPherson front struts and liquid-filled rear control arm bushings. On curvy country roads, the Freestar felt steady, with little body roll on corners. With a towing package that will be available later in the model year, the Freestar can tow up to 1,590 kg (3,500 lb).

A fail-safe cooling system feature is new for 2004. It allows the vehicle to be driven under limited power in the event that engine coolant is lost. In case of a ruptured hose, the engine operates in an emergency mode with limited power for driving a short distance, eliminating the cost and inconvenience of having the vehicle towed to a service station. I can attest that it's a good feature, as I have been stranded beside the highway three separate times with hose failures -- twice in older Ford Taurus models I'd owned.

A few weeks after our initial preview drive, we had another chance to drive the Freestar back-to-back with the perceived best minivan on the market, the Honda Odyssey, and the sales leader, the Dodge Caravan. A special test track set up by Ford of Canada included winding and sharp turns, a mini-slalom course, a skid pad and various bumpy obstacles to drive over.

Clearly, Ford wouldn't have let us try this unless it was sure the Freestar would surpass its competitors, and that it did. Its handling was better, stability on bumps around corners was great, acceleration was better, and braking was smooth, straight and fast.

The Freestar, equipped with all-wheel traction control, performed extremely well on the skid pad, a set of large flat metal plates on the tarmac that were wetted down with the rain that day. The Freestar got our top marks in all accelerating, stopping and turning tests.

Seating capacity is seven, with 25 cu ft of storage space behind the third row. When that seat is folded away, cargo capacity expands to 69 cu ft. With the second-row seats removed, there's 134 cu ft of space for gear.

The third row seat is labelled to make the three-steps needed to stow it easy. Lifting it back up required a hearty effort, though.

The second-row captain's chairs, standard on SEL and Limited models, fold and tumble easily using just one hand, providing a clear access to the third row. Both chairs can be removed completely if needed. Base models come with a two-seat bench in the second row, although Ford expects to sell only a few equipped this way.

It's clear that Ford's designers had storage on the top of their minds when creating the Freestar. A deep bin behind the upright third-row seat is about the size of a hockey bag and swallows large loads of gear or groceries. The front doors feature dual map pockets stacked vertically. It's a clever and practical design.

There also is a covered compartment on top of the instrument panel. There are 10 cupholders throughout, including neat breakaway ones on the sides of the second row seats. If you step on one by mistake, it clicks back into position without breaking (we tried it). Both sliding doors also have storage bins.

Ford says it made hundreds of manufacturing changes to improve the quality of its new minivan. Several modifications were made to reduce NVH (noise, vibration and harshness). Body sealing is improved. The window glass is thicker. The engine is quieter. Various mounts are redesigned and sound insulation is improved. Ford claims a 10% reduction in wind noise, and we can't disagree. In fact, wind noise and tire noise were minimal on our test drives.

Ford's minivan has caught up to the competition in many design areas, while maintaining the company's strong focus on safety. This helps make the Freestar a contender for all those families who favour practicality over the minivan's 'boring' stigma in the automotive market.

Although, on the outside, the Freestar isn't dramatically different in appearance from its predecessor, there are countless changes and improvements -- and we've only reported a few here. Ford says its goal was to make the Freestar the most flexible, most powerful and highest-quality minivan it has ever built. After our preview, it seems that goal's been achieved.

© Copyright Bill Roebuck, 2004.

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