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2004 Minivan Buyer's Guide
by Martha Hindes

2005 Ford Freestar

We first tested Ford's redesigned front-drive Freestar, and Mercury Monterey cousin, in the best of venues, cruising winding north country roads where the vastness of Lake Michigan lent a Pacific Ocean-type glow to twilight. Later, in less forgiving conditions, the Freestar ultimately would prove its worth, dodging potholes, enduring rush hour jam-ups and logging mile after mile through nasty winter weather.

We had come to this minivan makeover loaded with expectations: trendier styling, more storage and function, enhanced road performance and feel, advanced technology for safety and spunk and, despite its longtime Windstar heritage, a brand new name. What we also found were some pleasing, unexpected additions: adjustable pedals to give a boost to a shorter driver, a failsafe cooling system if coolant is lost, self-sealing tires and panic brake assist, plus signaling lights on the side view mirrors.

That was Freestar following its major revision last year. As it enters its second season for '05, Ford has added some finishing touches: new, fresh, clear coat metallic colors, including Arizona beige, Matador red (for the high volume S level version), and a silver birch/graphite combo for the top-of-the-line Limited. The up market SES adds a sporty lift gate spoiler in addition to black grille, lower fascia and cladding trim.

This, says Ford, is its quietest minivan ever. We won't argue after miles of easy conversation at steady highway speeds. Freestar, with five trim levels, is powered by two V-6 engines Ford describes as "high-torque" for more grunt -- a 193-HP, 3.9-liter generating 245-lb. ft., and a 201-HP, 4.2-liter with 263-lb. ft., the only one available on the three upper class Montereys. A smooth four-speed auto trans features "fast acting" hydraulics.

Ford keeps the safety bragging rights it had when its minivan was called the Windstar, not surprising considering that's still the foundation of the Freestar. The latest accolade: the just-received "Best Pick" designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Ford has stressed safety with an available side rollover air canopy system.

While the Freestar is nicely done inside, a more tonal interior and more amenities make the Monterey feel more upscale, with front and rear parking assist, available cooled seats, three zones of temperature control, leather trim and memory-adjustable pedals. Inside, the redesign gives both vehicles more storage nooks and indoor room crannies for those huge, 20-ounce beverages, plus a nifty covered hiding place bin atop the instrument panel. Third row seats stow flat in the floor for expanded storage space, or flop over into rear facing seats for tailgating parties. Push-down headrests make the transition a breeze. An optional power lift gate was added during the'04 model year for all but the base model.

Despite list prices from the high $20,000 to mid $30,000 range, both Freestar and Monterey models enjoyed some financing incentives following launch. And like other automakers adopting unique naming systems, (GM's growing use of alphanumeric signatures, for example), Ford continues its penchant for using the "F" words for essentially car-based products. Freestar follows that trend, which might cause an identity crisis with the upcoming crossover sport van Freestyle if one isn't alert.