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by Greg Wilson
Flat-folding 3rd row seat highlights Windstar-replacement
Though it has a new name, the 2004 Ford Freestar minivan is essentially the next-generation Windstar, Ford’s Oakville, Ontario-built extended length minivan. The Freestar is not radically different to the Windstar, but it has been improved in some of the areas that received criticism in the past. For example, the Freestar has a bigger and more importantly, quieter V6 engine and increased use of sound deadening material to reduce cabin noise. A new fold-into-the-floor third row seat replaces the cumbersome removeable rear seat, and the new interior is more stylish and functional. As well, an exterior styling face-lift includes brighter headlamps, and there are some new safety features such as Brake Assist.
Prices have risen modestly considering the changes: the 2004 Freestar ranges in price from $27,195 to $43,695 – up from the 2003 Windstar’s price range of $26,195 to $42,310.
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One reason for the Freestar’s name change may be the Windstar’s less than stellar reputation for reliability: the Windstar had twenty-four recalls since its introduction in 1994 (see Transport Canada’s list of recalls). Many of these had to do with minor issues, but some had to do with more serious issues like unexpected airbag deployments, electrical short circuits and improperly installed windshields. So far, the 2004 Freestar has had one recall which affected 5,434 vehicles concerning a possible power steering fluid leak.
In terms of vehicle safety, a consideration that’s always near the top of the list for minivan owners (who usually have young children), the 2004 Freestar is as good or better than the Windstar. The Freestar is one of only two minivans that received a “Good” rating and “Best Pick” designation in recent 40 mph frontal offset crash tests by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It also received the top rating, 5 stars for both driver and front passenger, in the 35 mph frontal crash tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Administration.
In addition to multi-stage frontal airbags and side airbags in the front seats, the Freestar is the only minivan available with a rollover sensor that deploys both side curtain airbags in the event of a rollover.
With a new name and upgrades in the quality and assembly, Ford is probably hoping for a fresh start with the Freestar – especially in light of increased competition from the redesigned Toyota Sienna, and the new Nissan Quest.
What you get for your money
The 2004 Freestar comes in five trim levels: base $27,195, SE $29,595; Sport $32,295; SEL $37,695; and Limited $43,695.
In the U.S. the base Freestar comes with a 193 horsepower 3.9 litre V6, but in Canada all Freestars have a 201 horsepower 4.2 litre V6 engine (replacing the 200 horsepower 3.8 litre V6), a 4-speed automatic transmission, 7-passenger seating with a fold-into-the-floor third row seat, air conditioning, AM/FM radio, power windows, locks and mirrors; 16 tires, 4 wheel disc brakes with ABS, and remote keyless entry.
The Freestar SE ($29,295) adds a CD player, cruise control, roof rack, and upgraded cloth seats.
The Sport ($32,295) adds a rear spoiler and alloy wheels, leather wrapped steering wheel, cassette player, 3-zone air conditioning, power driver’s seat, overhead console, centre captain’s chairs, power adjustable pedals, and keypad on the driver’s door.
The SEL ($37,695) adds a chrome grille and two-tone cladding, dual rear power sliding doors, 3-zone automatic climate control, message centre, polished alloy wheels, automatic headamps and cornering lamps.
The top-of-the-line Limited ($43,695) includes traction, skid control and emergency brake assist system; curtain airbags, leather seats, heated front seats, 6-disc CD changer, mirror turn signals, and rear obstacle warning system.
My test vehicle was a Limited model with all the goodies. As-tested price was $44,820 including $1,025 Freight charge.
Much improved interior
A classier, more attractive interior is the first thing you’ll notice when you get in to the Freestar. Chrome-ringed gauges, a small chromed clock in the centre panel, simple white on black console controls, higher quality plastics and chrome and walnut trim on upscale models all add to a much higher quality look.
It’s still a low step-in height (17 inches) to the driver’s seat, but the captain’s chair makes you feel like you’re sitting up above the traffic, and visibility is very good. All the windows are large and the three rear head restraints are recessed to avoid blocking the rear view, and the rear window slopes down to provide improved visibility when backing up. Kudos to Ford for making it easy to see where you’re going.
The Freestar’s front captain’s chairs have inboard folding armrests, and the driver sits upright. I found it very comfortable. Power adjustable pedals, a power driver’s seat, and a tilt steering wheel contribute to a driving position that’s acceptable for drivers of all sizes.
The wiper, headlights, radio and heater controls are close at hand and easy to operate, and the green LCD display is easy to see. My Limited model included separate driver and front passenger temperature controls and a separate rear temperature control as well. The centre console also includes two 12 volt powerpoints, two pull-out cupholders, an open storage area for CDs, and a flip-down storage bin. And there is more storage between the front seats and a covered bin on top of the dash – typically where you’d put a garage door opener. The overhead console includes a compass and outside temperature gauge.
My only complaint with the dash was that the “Tune” button for the radio is positioned next to the CD player and is not marked.
Like all minivans these days, the Freestar has rear sliding doors on both sides. If you constantly open and close your rear doors for your kids, I’d recommend you get the optional power operated sliding doors. They can be operated from the driver’s seat by pressing a button on the overhead console, from the passenger seats by pressing a button on the door jamb, or by tugging on the inside or outside door handles. They can also be opened remotely from the outside with a key fob. However, if you try to open them manually, the effort required is considerable. And you can’t close them manually from the inside because the door handle is hidden behind the rear pillar.
The second row captain’s seats in my Limited model were almost as comfortable as the front seats, but they don’t have seat heaters. They offer two folding armrests, reclining backrests, and fore-aft adjustment. Legroom and headroom are generous. As well, second row passengers have flip-out cupholders on the sides of the seats, overhead air vents, overhead map lights, powerpoints, and optional a/c and heater controls, and optional rear radio controls with headphone jacks.
Both second row buckets can flip over forwards to allow passengers to access the third row. The third row seat has a rather stiff cushion, and it is close to the floor forcing the passenger’s knees to stick up uncomfortably. There is plenty of headroom though. The third seat has three head restraints and three 3-point seatbelts, but the seat is really only wide enough for two adults.
Big cargo area
The rear cargo door lifts up from bumper height revealing a large cargo opening with a low loading height. The rear cargo opening is 4 feet wide, 3’3″ high, and 2 feet long to the back of the 3rd row seat. A deep well in the cargo floor where the rear seat folds into adds space and keeps bags and groceries from rolling around the cargo floor.
Folding the third seat into the floor is not a difficult task, and it can be done with one hand. There are three straps, and by tugging on two and pulling the third, the seat drops down into the well. It’s also easy enough to raise. A bonus is that you don’t have to remove the three recessed head restraints before lowering or raising the seat. A feature the Freestar shares with the Mazda MPV is the ability to turn the rear seat around and face backwards for sporting events and “tailgate parties”.
With the 3rd row seat folded into the floor, the cargo floor is 4 1/2 feet long to the back of the second row seats. By removing the centre bucket seats or centre bench, the cargo floor is over 7 feet long.
The big rear hatch door has a large pull-type handle to open it, and another large handle on the inside to close the door. At the moment, the Freestar doesn’t offer a power tailgate, but this feature will be offered in the near future. To prevent cargo from being scratched while loading, the Freestar has a black plastic protective cover on the bumper and a recessed cargo door latch. As well, the third row seat is carpeted on the back. The side walls, however, are plastic.
Like most minivans, the Freestar doesn’t have a separately opening rear window, but the window has a wiper and washer to keep it clean.
Safety has been given a high priority in the Freestar. In addition to its excellent crash test performance, the Freestar includes a full list of safety equipment including three-point safety belts and adjustable head restraints for all seven passengers, and a front passenger weight-sensor designed to automatically deactivate the front passenger air bag when the seat is empty or occupied by a small child.
The Freestar’s side curtain head air bags deploy from the headliner to cover most of the glass area along all three rows of seating. In a rollover, they deploy on both sides of the vehicle and remain inflated longer to help protect occupants from multiple impacts and prevent occupants from being ejected.
My test vehicle also had the optional Reverse Sensing System which warns of hidden objects behind the vehicle when backing up.
The Freestar’s standard 4.2 litre V6 pushrod engine with two valves per cylinder isn’t exactly high-tech but it does the job. It has the same horsepower at the previous 3.8 litre V6, but more torque: 263 lb-ft @ 3650 rpm vs 240 @ 3600 rpm. In fact, it has the most torque in its class. That means quick throttle responsiveness from a standing start, when lane-changing, and when accelerating onto the freeway. Though the Freestar isn’t as quick from 0 to 100 km/h as the Toyota Sienna or Nissan Quest (0 to 100 km/h takes about 10.5 seconds according to tests conducted by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, about 1.5 seconds slower than the Sienna and Quest), it’s very responsive in around town use where it will probably spend most of its time. On the freeway, the engine loafs along at only 1900 rpm at a steady 100 km/h.
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The Freestar is definately quieter than the Windstar. Engine noise and vibration has been reduced, and as a result the cabin feels more comfortable and refined. With its long wheelbase and Uniroyal Tiger Paw 235/60R-16 inch tires, the Freestar has a very comfortable ride. Its wide track also contributes to confident handling, although it’s not quite as sporty as a Honda Odyssey or Nissan Quest.
Stomping on the gas pedal won’t cause the improved four-speed automatic transmission to hesitate or miss a shift. It’s a smooth, competent transmission. However, I wonder why Ford didn’t upgrade to a five-speed automatic like many of their competitors. They certainly have one in their equipment list.
All Freestars come with standard disc brakes and anti-lock brakes on all four wheels. When equipped with the optional AdvanceTrac anti-skid system, the brakes include a new Panic Assist emergency braking feature. In independent braking tests conducted by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), braking distances were about average in its class: 134 feet to stop from 100 km/h to 0 km/h.
The Freestar Limited’s competitors include the Chrysler Town and Country ($48,405), Toyota Sienna XLE ($43,600), Honda Odyssey EX ($39,400), Nissan Quest SE ($43,400). Though not the roomiest or the most powerful, the Freestar has all a big family could really need. Unlike the Town & Country and Sienna though, the Freestar doesn’t offer optional all-wheel-drive.
An improvement over the Windstar, the new Freestar is quieter, more comfortable and more practical due to its new fold-into-the-floor third row seat. On the negative side, its warranty isn’t as good as its import competitors, and it remains to be seen if the Freestar will be more reliable than the Windstar.
Technical Data: 2004 Ford Freestar Limited
|Price as tested||$44,820|
|Type||4-door, 7 passenger extended length minivan|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||4.2 litre V6, OHV, 2 valves per cylinder|
|Horsepower||201 @ 4250 rpm|
|Torque||263 @ 3650 rpm|
|Tires||Uniroyal Tiger Paw 235/60R-16|
|Curb weight||1939 mm (4275 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||3066 mm (120.8 in.)|
|Length||5105 mm (201.0 in.)|
|Width||1946 mm (76.6 in.)|
|Height||1748 mm (68.8 in.)|
|Towing capacity||1588 kg (3500 lb.)|
|Cargo area||730 litres (25.8 cu. ft.) behind 3rd row seats|
|1970 litres (69.6 cu. ft.) behind 2nd row seats|
|3810 litres (134.3 cu. ft.) behind front seats|
|Fuel consumption||City: 14.4 L/100 km (20 mpg)|
|Highway: 9.6 L/100 km (29 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 years/60,000 km|
|Powertrain Warranty||5 years/100,000 km|