If you had to make a list of the current trends in family transportation, it would surely include wagons and car-based crossover SUVs. Wagons (the stylish ones anyway) are becoming more appealing to sedan buyers who need more cargo room, as well as would-be SUV buyers who realize they don't need all that ground clearance. Car-based SUVs, meanwhile, are a strong draw for would-be SUV buyers who realize they don't need all-terrain capability but don't want to give up the image or convenience of driving one of these vehicles. In reality, these buyers aren't very different from one another and it's getting harder to draw the line between wagons and SUVs -- features like all-wheel drive, third-row seating and fold-flat seats are available on both sides.
Already several manufacturers have attempted to straddle this line, but unlike others before it, Ford's well-packaged Freestyle does so with few if any compromises.
We consider Ford's Explorer one of the most practical SUVs on the market today, and consumer enthusiasm and incentives have made it the best-selling utility vehicle on the market through thick and thin. When Ford began work on the Freestyle, the company turned to Explorer owners for wisdom. "A lot of customers didn't go off-road but bought an SUV [anyway] because of flexibility and packaging," a Ford marketing official told us.
Like the new Five Hundred sedan, the Freestyle is built on the same platform as the Volvo S60 and S80 sedans, V70 and XC70 wagons and the XC90 SUV. Chassis tuning is similar to that of the Volvos, and Ford makes no attempt to hide the fact that safety and all-wheel-drive technology is shared between the two brands as well. The Freestyle rides higher than a Taurus but lower than an Explorer, and offers the kind of step-in access you get with a minivan. But Ford's new wagon manages not to look like a minivan -- it has four hinged doors and its squarish front fascia strongly resembles the Explorer's. Add on a two-tone paint job and it's easy to convince yourself that you're looking at an SUV.
Inside, the Freestyle offers excellent visibility from the cockpit and "progressive theater seating" for the second and third rows: Each row is two inches higher than the one before it. Depending on whether you select captain's chairs or a 60/40 bench seat in the second row, the wagon can seat six or seven passengers. This kind of seating capacity is nothing remarkable among today's family vehicles, but the Freestyle is one of the few vehicles outside the minivan segment that can honestly seat this many people in comfort.
In our brief time spent with the wagon, we had no complaints about the accommodations up front. We would have liked to see telescoping steering wheel adjustment for the driver, but the optional adjustable pedals are a reasonable substitute. The second row is comfortable for both adults and children, as this 5-foot-10 writer had plenty of legroom and foot room. And the seats themselves are large enough to support the thighs and backs of adult occupants. The captain's chairs can be adjusted fore and aft to provide more legroom for third-row passengers, but the 60/40 bench seat is non-adjustable. Even with the captain's chairs moved all the way up, we still had adequate legroom -- this feature should come in very handy on carpool days. On vehicles with the captain's chairs, buyers can either leave the center walkway open or opt for a center console unit.
Gaining access to the third row should be no problem for older children and adults, as both the second-row chairs and bench are easy to fold and flip out of the way. Third-row legroom is adequate when the second-row seats are in the all-the-way-back position and quite generous when the captain's chairs are scooted up. The seat itself sits a bit low to the floor, but the seat-bottom cushion is deep enough and the back cushion soft enough to allow adults to travel comfortably for short durations. For kids between the ages of 4 and 12, this two-person bench should be ideal.
One of our complaints about SUVs like the Explorer and wagons like the Chrysler Pacifica is that when you're carrying a full load of passengers, there's almost no cargo space to speak of. You might be able to fit a few groceries behind the third-row seat, but what if you're shopping for the whole week? The Freestyle provides a satisfying answer to that question, as it has a deep cargo well behind its rearmost seat, allowing owners to fit at least a half-dozen paper grocery bags without dropping the seat. For those who go by the numbers, cargo volume measures 22.5 cubic feet behind the third row.
In situations in which you do need to fold the seats, it's a simple process. The 50/50-split third-row seats are equipped with easy-to-follow instructions (on their seat backs) and numbered, color-coded straps. (Although the 50/50 third-row seat is available on all trims, lower-line models come standard with a single-piece bench seat that we were not able to try out at the press launch.) Folding the second-row seats is just as straightforward, and once done, you have a smooth load floor that isn't perfectly flat but has no gaps for stuff to fall into and get lost. If you ever need to haul something really long, the front-passenger seat can be folded as well.
The one complaint we have about the Freestyle's cargo-hauling capabilities is the weight of the rear liftgate. It seemed unnecessarily heavy even to a physically fit adult, and the interior grab handle isn't large enough to allow you to get the proper leverage to close it. You have to put a hand on the outside of the gate to get it fully closed, and that's not something we'd want to do when the liftgate is crusted with slush and gunk in the winter. A lighter gate or a better grab handle would be a big help.
As in the Five Hundred, designers made sure that the Freestyle's cabin would be a generally pleasant place to spend time. Beyond its comfortable, roomy seating, the wagon has a crisp, attractive dash design with well-organized controls. The gauges have cream faces and are easy to read. An overhead console houses the flip-down conversation mirror found in Ford's minivans and SUVs, so that parents can get a quick read on what's going on in the second and third rows. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system is available to keep the troops entertained in back while rear climate controls should help minimize the number of "I'm too hot" and "I'm too cold" complaints. And to keep everyone safe, you'll find both side-impact airbags (for the front) and head curtain airbags (for all three rows) on the options list.
Unfortunately, as in other domestic-brand vehicles, interior materials quality is inconsistent. The available leather upholstery has a durable coarse grain, and looks and feels good to the touch. The standard cloth upholstery isn't quite as impressive -- it seemed like it would hold up under family use but didn't strike us as very attractive. Even less appealing were the brittle plastics elsewhere in the cabin -- it's nothing that will offend an Explorer owner but if you're accustomed to import-brand quality, you might not like what you see. Lower-line models offer faux carbon-fiber dash trim, while top-of-the-line models get warmer wood grain trim -- both of these materials are passable in a family wagon, import or domestic.
For power, the Freestyle offers the most updated version of the 3.0-liter Duratec V6, which now includes electronic throttle control. Horsepower comes in at 203, while torque measures 207 pound-feet. If you've shopped for a wagon or SUV recently, then you know these are not great numbers for a 4,000-pound vehicle. Still, the Freestyle does weigh over 500 pounds less than a Pacifica, and it has the benefit of a more advanced transmission -- a CVT.
A CVT, or continuously variable transmission, functions basically like a regular automatic (all you have to do is press the gas pedal) but has no fixed gear ratios. Instead of shifting, it varies the gear ratio continually, choosing from an infinite number of possibilities. When properly programmed, a CVT feels more responsive than an automatic and does a better job of keeping the engine in the sweetest part of its power band.
Although the Freestyle (along with the Five Hundred and Mercury Montego) represents the first application of a CVT in a Ford product, the transmission components are sourced from the same supplier Audi uses for its CVTs -- which hopefully bodes well for reliability. Actual performance is quite good, as this transmission is one of the smoothest CVTs we've ever experienced and far more responsive than the four-speed automatic Ford has previously used with the Duratec V6.
We found acceleration acceptable for the most part with ample power down low for easy city driving. The Freestyle has little difficulty getting up to highway speeds, but we expect that owners will wish for a little more juice for passing maneuvers, especially when the vehicle is loaded up with passengers and gear. The Freestyle did feel faster than the Pacifica, but other potential competitors like the Dodge Magnum, Honda Pilot, Subaru Outback and Toyota Highlander would offer brisker acceleration still.
Although the Freestyle offers just one engine/transmission combination, you do have the option of getting front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Opting for all-wheel drive adds about 150 pounds of curb weight to your wagon; we didn't notice a big difference in acceleration, though the CVT seemed a tad busier on AWD Freestyles. The extra weight does have an impact on mileage, but the EPA figures are encouraging nonetheless -- front-drive models earn a 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway rating and AWD models rate 19 city/24 highway.
The Freestyle's all-wheel-drive system is the same electronically controlled system used in various Volvo models, and it is notable for its ability to respond quickly to traction loss. Ford had set up a light off-roading course at the introductory event we attended, and the Freestyle efficiently made its way up steep dirt grades -- as the AWD system identified front wheel slippage and rerouted power to the rear wheels before much tire spin could occur. In ideal traction conditions, the AWD system sends power to the front wheels only to promote better fuel economy. Traction control is standard on all Freestyles; on AWD models, it allows for side-to-side power transfers.
Volvo's influence is also apparent in the Freestyle's ride and handling characteristics. The wagon's fully independent suspension delivers a smooth, refined ride for comfortable travel with the family and responsive handling in the corners. We wouldn't go so far as to call the Freestyle sporty, but it does feel smaller and nimbler than the Pacifica and many competing SUVs. The steering is nicely weighted to keep things easy in the parking lot while providing a secure heft at highway speeds. We were also impressed by the wagon's four-wheel disc brakes, which felt solid and progressive in their action. ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution are standard on every Freestyle, but curiously, stability control is not available. We say "curiously" because both Ford and Volvo have this technology at their disposal.
Even with its Swedish mechanicals and space-efficient cabin design, the Freestyle is reasonably priced as family vehicles go. The range stretches from $25,595 for a base SE to $29,195 for a loaded Limited. The SE comes with all the essential equipment, including 17-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass, seating for six, air conditioning, a CD player, a six-way power driver seat, full power accessories (including a one-touch up-and-down driver window) and cruise control. The midgrade SEL adds an in-dash MP3-compatible CD changer, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with auxiliary audio controls, automatic headlights, foglights, heated side mirrors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a trip computer, extra sound insulation and body-color door handles and mirrors.
If you go for the Limited, you'll get 18-inch wheels, leather upholstery in the first and second rows, wood grain interior trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, an upgraded sound system, power adjustments for both front seats (along with memory for the driver), front seat heaters, the 50/50-split third-row bench and a rear cargo net. Note that SE and SEL models come with two-tone exterior paint, while the Limited gets a monochromatic paint job.
Options on the Freestyle include power-adjustable pedals, a three-person bench seat for the second row (provides seven-passenger capacity), a rear air conditioner, a rear entertainment system, a moonroof and reverse parking sensors. One obvious omission on this list is a navigation system, an item Ford should definitely think about adding.
If you've got $25,000 to $30,000 to spend on a car this year, you could buy the V8-powered Chrysler 300C that everyone's talking about. Or you could go ahead and buy another SUV. But if you've got three kids and want a practical, safe vehicle that isn't a minivan, the Freestyle could be one of the smartest buys for 2005.
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