Click image to enlarge
Story and photos by Paul Williams
Chicago, Illinois – After months of talking up 2004 as Ford’s “Year of the Car,” you might be surprised to see that the soon-to-be-released $33,295-$43,195, seven-passenger, Ford Freestyle appears to be yet another SUV.
“Not exactly an SUV,” corrects Ford spokesman Jim Padilla. “More a purpose-designed and built crossover vehicle.” Adds Ford chief engineer Ray Nicosia, “The Freestyle bridges the gap between car and SUV. It’s a new segment for Ford.”
Tests by Ford reveal that 35% of consumers describe the Freestyle as an SUV, 30% as a crossover, and 25-30% as a station wagon. Ford is sticking with crossover, but it has attributes of them all.
Built at a redesigned Ford plant in Chicago, the Freestyle’s “P2” platform is from Volvo (where it’s used as the foundation for the S80 and the XC90). This means the Freestyle buyer gets the elevated ride-height, optional Haldex all-wheel drive system, independent suspension front and rear, and safety cell technology for superior occupant protection in crashes distinctive to this chassis.
The Chrysler Pacifica (if not an inspiration, then certainly a reference point) comes closest to the category being established by the Freestyle. Ford executives point out, however, that the Freestyle, at 1,800 kilograms, is lighter, nimbler, has a more flexible and spacious interior, is more fuel-efficient and most importantly perhaps, is considerably less expensive than the 1,996-kg Pacifica.
Under the hood is Ford’s 3.0-litre Duratec V-6 making 203 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque. Only one gearbox is available on the Freestyle, an “automatic” continuously variable transmission supplied by ZF Batavia.
The $33,295-$43,195 Freestyle will arrive in three levels of trim, SE, SEL and Limited, and all-wheel drive is a $2,750 stand-alone option for each of them.
Notable standard features in the base, SE, model include 17″ wheels, three rows of seating, six-way power driver’s seat, anti-lock brakes with traction control, keypad on driver’s door, air conditioning, roof rack side rails, an overhead console and privacy glass in the third row and liftgate. A second row bench seat (to replace the two bucket seats) is a no-cost option.
The $34,795 SEL adds body colour accents and chrome grille surround, automatic headlamps, six-disc CD changer with MP3 capability, fog lamps, remote steering wheel controls, auto-dimming mirrors and special bright alloy 17″ wheels.
Both the SE and SEL arrive with colour coordinated (grey) cladding for the bumpers and fender trim and rocker panels, giving these Freestyle models a more rugged, off-road, look. The Limited version uses body-coloured cladding intended to present the Freestyle in a more elegant light.
Starting at $40,445, Limited versions add 18″ wheels, perforated leather seating surfaces, woodgrain interior trim, premium audio, eight-way power driver’s seat with memory function and four-way power passenger seat, dual-zone automatic climate control.
A $995 safety package is available across the range that includes side curtain airbags and a roll-over safety canopy.
Equipment aside, it’s the on-road experience of driving the Freestyle that sets it apart from other vehicles. The floor is 10-centimeters lower than a Ford Explorer, but 15-cm higher than the average car. The second row seats are five-cm higher than the front seats, and the third row is five-cm higher again. Although it’s cleverly disguised, the roof height is also increased from the front to the back of the vehicle. If required, all the seats (with the exception of the driver’s seat) fold flat.
The result of this “command” level seating coupled with a low floor is ease of entry and exit compared with typical SUVs, coupled with a superior view of the road and a feeling of spaciousness for passengers compared with typical cars.
The conservatively (these days) powered V-6 is surprisingly efficient. Ford says the Freestyle needs only 8.5 seconds to 100 km/h (one-second quicker than the 250 horsepower Pacifica, they add) and the CVT gearbox permits fuel-efficient and very quiet highway cruising with engine speeds below 2000 r.p.m. on the highway.
Ford expects to sell about 7,000 Freestyles in its first model year in Canada.