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2004 Minivan Buyer's Guide
by Steve Siler

Ford Freestar / Mercury Monterey
Ford Freestar minivan

Ford's front-wheel-drive Windstar has done blown itself out, but only in name. Now, it is known as Freestar, while it is joined by a Mercury twin, the Monterey. As with the Ford Explorer/ Mercury Mountaineer SUVs, the Ford is expected to mainstream families while the Mercury version targets more upscale families.

To go along with its new name comes a much-needed exterior freshening for the Freestar. It's not radically different, but it now looks more in line with the corporate Ford look. The Mercury version dresses the architecture up a bit with its de rigueur satin metal trim pieces and Mercury-specific paint and wheel treatments.

There are also notable improvements inside. A new dash panel has been revised to incorporate new controls, instruments, additional storage areas and a measurable dose of quality. In Monterey, heated and cooled front seats add a dose of Lincoln-style luxury to an already dressy interior. The second-row buckets seats fold and tumble with a one-handed pull-handy when lugging groceries or kids.

The outgoing Windstar offered a comprehensive safety roster, and the Freestar and Monterey build upon that with an optional Safety Canopy system that includes side curtain air bag protection for all three rows of passengers in the event of a side impact or a rollover. Additionally, the front passenger air bag incorporates an occupant classification system that sizes up its passenger and deactivates the air bag if it determines that he or she could be injured if deployed.

The revised 3.9-liter V-6 engine in the Windstar-I mean Freestar-produces 200 hp and an impressive 240 lb-ft of torque. A new 4.2-liter V-6, which is standard on Monterey and optional on Freestar, makes 201 hp and a class-leading 265 lb-ft of torque. Low-end response is impressive with both engines while noise levels are admirably low.

So will you wish upon a Freestar or head out to Monterey? Either way, you can't go wrong with these excellent new vans.