The Ford Freestyle was built for those moments when you've got no choice but to get up close and personal with your loved ones.
There's nothing easy about family road trips. Whether you're in the planning, preparing or packing stages, perhaps the only thing more daunting than getting ready to go is actually getting on the road. Only then will your picture of familial bliss move clearly into focus. Will you make it past one or two rest stops before someone needs to go? How many mile-markers will slide by before you determine which little rear-seat imps will be performing the time-honored antagonist and protagonist roles? In simpler terms, will little Johnny pick on Sally, or will Sally pester him first?
If you have a few dozen family road trips under your belt, you probably already realize that second to determining if Red Vines qualify as a "nutritious" snack, the most important adult decision you can make regarding a family outing is vehicle choice. Are your needs best suited by a station wagon, a minivan or perhaps an SUV? For most families, there are clear benefits and drawbacks to each. If after compiling a pros and cons list your choice remains uncertain, don't fret, the 2005 Ford Freestyle is here to help.
Think of the Freestyle as a tall station wagon, a more family-friendly SUV or a hipper minivan. The Freestyle successfully combines numerous typical family-vehicle attributes. It has three rows of functional seating to accommodate six or seven passengers, yet still provides plenty of usable cargo space. Like a minivan, the Freestyle has a low step-in height which enables little ones to climb in and out easily, while sparing parents the back-straining exercise of stooping down to load the kids and their car seats into a conventional wagon or sedan. It has ample legroom for all three rows of seating, exceptional headroom and a fold-flat third-row rear seat that creates a sizable cargo floor. Ford's new wagon also features a high seating position for a better view of the road and optional all-wheel drive -- two of the most popular reasons cited for driving an SUV. What it doesn't have are sliding doors (as on a minivan), but unlike its closest crossover competitor, the Chrysler Pacifica, its rear doors swing open wide enough so that loading passengers and their stuff doesn't feel laborious.
When testing new vehicles, the optimal situation is that of real-world user. With that in mind, we scheduled a family road trip to Northern California, and began preparations. Our Ford Freestyle arrived in midlevel SEL trim and alas, did not contain a DVD rear entertainment system that's standard on the upscale Limited model (it's a $995 option on the SEL). Realizing how spoiled our family has become with the assumption that every family vehicle is automatically stocked with down-the-road movie entertainment, we tucked back in our pouting lower lip and reminded ourselves that our quest was to travel like an average family, and not a family of privileged automotive journalists. Looking around the interior, another technological feature recognizably absent was a navigation system, a feature not offered on any Freestyle. No DVD player, no nav system to fool with....this was going to be a long trip.
Instead of watching movies, we passed the time by exploring the Ford Freestyle's expansive cabin and discussing its comfort. The front passengers concurred that although the seats appear to have decent padding, it doesn't take many miles before you start to feel like you've sunk below the foam. The driver seat comes with six-way power adjustability, but the passenger seat uses manual adjustments only in SEL trim. The second-row captain's chairs have adjustable headrests and seat backs, although the seats do not fully recline (larger families should note that they can get a bench seat as a no-cost option). Third-row legroom is surprisingly generous, making the rearmost seat a much more viable option for adults than the shorter seat in the Pacifica. Freestyle seating is theater-style, with each successive row mounted slightly higher than the seats before it to prevent the rear passengers from feeling like they're sitting in a hole. Yet, no matter which seat you're strapped into, there's plenty of headroom to go around.
Our Freestyle didn't benefit from the optional leather seating (standard on the Limited model), and instead was swathed with gray fabric upholstery. The fabric patterns were attractive with checkerboardlike inserts on the seat back and bottom, surrounded by solid gray. Unfortunately, the Freestyle we drove was less than a few thousand miles old, and the fabric was already showing slight signs of wear with tiny snags. We didn't dislike the upholstery, but feel that leather would probably be a more durable choice in this case.
Overall, the cabin is well thought out -- simple and functional with lots of convenient storage nooks and bins. The design isn't flashy or eye-catching, but the setup appealed to all family members, both up front and in back. In the front, we quickly stashed straw and gum wrappers in the small door bins, and filled the center console with digital cameras, a garage door opener, extra napkins, Kleenex and spare keys. The two fixed cupholders held every water and soda bottle we purchased along the way, and we often used the additional cupholders integrated in the door bins. There is also a covered bin on the dash that we never found the occasion to use. A flip-open sunglasses holder and school-buslike conversation mirror are mounted above the rearview mirror.
In back, the kids stored their elementary reading material in the small, fabric map pockets, and their juice boxes and McDonald's milk bottles in the optional second-row center console cupholders. Total cupholder count in the Freestyle is 14 for those who are beverage-obsessed. The second-row console is deep like the one in front, and would certainly house encased DVDs had our Freestyle been equipped with the entertainment system. Plus, there was an additional pull-out drawer at the bottom that could have held still more movies or video games.
While the Freestyle Limited is outfitted with faux wood accents, the SEL's center stack is trimmed in a faux carbon-fiber appliqué that surrounds the vents and gauges to add a sporty look. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of most of the interior materials, especially the soft-touch center console lid and door panels. But some trim pieces seemed of lesser quality, like the slightly off-center silver piece that accented the leather-covered shifter knob. It looked like it might pop off without too much effort. Otherwise, though, the cabin felt sturdy.
It seems strange that Ford isn't offering a navigation system, especially on an all-new vehicle, but the absence of a nav screen offers plenty of space for the rest of the controls on the center stack. Three dials and three buttons control the straightforward climate control system, but our test vehicle wasn't equipped with separate controls for the rear passengers. You can pick them up as a $595 option on all Freestyles.
An in-dash six-disc CD changer with MP3 compatibility is standard on the SEL, and the stereo head unit provides scan and seek buttons to work the green LED display screen, but unfortunately, no tuner knob. When adjusting the volume to encourage the sweet dreams of our littlest passenger, several spins of the dial were necessary to reduce the volume even a small amount.
One issue with choosing a trim level below the top-of-the-line offering is that you're certain to be reminded of the options you opted not to get. This minor irritation was noticeable in our SEL as it had no less than five blank, nonfunctioning buttons on the center stack. Also interesting is the knob near the gauge cluster that switches the odometer readings from full mileage to trip mileage displays. Typically you push it in quickly to change back and forth, and hold it down to clear the trip record. Instead, the SEL gets a small onboard computer that operates with steering wheel-mounted controls. It took a quick flip through the owner's manual to determine that our odometer knob was nonfunctional, and we needed to view and clear the trip odometer through the computer controls instead.
Out of all the fine qualities offered in the 2005 Ford Freestyle, enormous cargo capacity is its standout feature. The Freestyle boasts 17.6 cubic feet of storage with the third-row seat folded down, and a whopping 85 cubes with all passenger seats folded. The Chrysler Pacifica offers 13 and 80 cubic feet in its comparable measures. When our family hits the road we drag along not only the kitchen sink, but likely the bathroom basin as well, and our Freestyle getaway was no exception. We loaded down the cargo area with duffle bags, computer bags, a little girl's roller bag, extra pillows, blankets, toys, soccer and football equipment and even a full-size plastic laundry basket which served as the lazy mother's luggage. The Freestyle easily swallowed up our long-weekend survival gear with room to spare.
There's a problem with bringing along so much stuff, however, and that's the added weight, especially when you're talking about a vehicle that already tips the scales at 4,112 pounds. If the Freestyle has an Achilles' heel, it's under the hood. Only one engine is available -- a 3.0-liter V6 that produces a lackluster 203 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Likewise, there's just one gearbox, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that provides an infinite number of gear ratios to improve acceleration and fuel economy. The EPA's fuel economy estimates for all-wheel-drive Freestyles are 19 mpg city and 24 mpg highway (front-wheel-drive models get a 20/27 rating), and our own fuel log showed an average of 19.4 mpg over five tanks of gas that included some city, but mostly highway miles.
When it comes to acceleration, the Freestyle's around-town performance isn't all that bad given its moderate horsepower rating, but we weren't as pleased during our lengthy freeway trip which included several long uphill grades. Not only did the Freestyle struggle to make the climb, but the drone of the engine became annoying for everyone aboard. At one point, we even fell victim to an ordinarily pokey first-generation Toyota Prius that dogged us for nearly an hour. As desperately as we tried to pull away from the mid-50ish couple driving the Prius, we could never find enough reserve power to leave them behind.
In contrast to the lack of power, the Freestyle's handling was impressive as it seemed more agile than its generous curb weight would suggest. Body roll isn't excessive in turns, and the steering has progressive weighting that works well whether you're in a parking lot or on the highway. Its steering radius, however, isn't quite so good, as its 40-foot turning circle has it turning wider than a Toyota Sienna minivan (which turns in a tidy 36.8-foot circle). Bringing the heavy Freestyle to a stop during our trip seemed effortless, and we never took issue with the effectiveness of the Freestyle's standard four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Performance testing told a different story, however, as there was noticeable brake fade after a couple of runs and visible smoke from the rotors after the third hard stop.
As we returned home from our brief family adventure, we stopped to consider whether the Freestyle had been an enjoyable family road-trip companion. Running through our checklist of possible complaints, we ruled out many without much discussion. Did it handle all the cargo we could think to load up? Check. Did it offer enough seating options for the four of us, plus an occasional passenger or two? Check. Was the feature content comparable to its competitors, and if so, did the quality of each item measure up? Check, check. After much discussion, we realized that other than the underpowered engine, we had little to complain about. With a base MSRP of $28,695 for our all-wheel-drive SEL test vehicle, we were noticeably under the $30,645 asking price for a similarly equipped Pacifica. Although the Chrysler may have more unique exterior styling, for our future family road trips, we'd definitely choose the sheer functionality of the Ford Freestyle over the Pacifica's less traditional form.
System Score: 7.0
Components: The standard stereo on the Freestyle SEL includes an in-dash six-disc CD changer with MP3 compatibility. The head unit is well placed and easy to use, although some of the functions, like manual radio tuning and bass/treble adjustments, aren't as user-friendly as they could be. The volume knob is big, but not sensitive enough to adjust the volume level without a serious spin of the knob, and some buttons are on the small side. The main drawback is the dated-looking, green-tinted LED display.
Performance: Sound quality is good on this system -- better than expected. Bass response is nice and loud, but it tends to sound a bit artificial at times compared to that of higher-end stereos. The bass, mids and highs are separated well and that makes for a clean-sounding system overall.
Best Feature: Overall sound quality.
Worst Feature: Outdated display.
Conclusion: With a standard CD/MP3 changer, this system is at worst equal to its closest competitors. -- Kelly Toepke
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Rather than get into all the various pros and cons of the Freestyle, let's just compare it to its most obvious competitor, the Chrysler Pacifica. They are both station wagons (though neither manufacturer likes the term) that offer three rows of seating and available all-wheel drive. In terms of drivetrain performance, they both lack the necessary power to haul around their considerable weight. Additionally, neither engine offers a particularly advanced design and both create too much racket and too many vibrations at high rpm. I think the Pacifica has a slight performance advantage, but the Freestyle is a little better behaved above 5,000 rpm. We'll call it a wash.
Interior design is another close call. The Freestyle gets the nod with regard to more usable space, including a fully functional third-row seat that quickly folds away while creating a flat (albeit high) load floor. The Pacifica offers better materials and a quieter ride, especially at highway speeds. No clear winner here, but the sheer functionality of the Freestyle gives it the advantage in my book. Driving dynamics are also strong for both vehicles, but the Freestyle's excellent steering response and lighter curb weight ultimately eclipse the Pacifica, making it the vehicle I'd rather drive.
Add it all up and you're left with the less expensive Ford station wagon performing slightly better than the more expensive Chrysler alternative, giving it the advantage. Unfortunately, I don't like either of these wagons as much as I could (or should). Ford needs to dress up the interior materials, Chrysler needs to better utilize the space and both of them need an engine based in the 21st century.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I can't believe how much I dislike this car in light of how ultimately good it is. The Freestyle has a good-looking interior -- metallic trim on the vents and door panels mimic the recently redesigned Ford trucks. Dare I say it seems to have an Audi quality to it? Unlike the Ford Freestar, the Freestyle's interior isn't just nice-looking but with cheap materials, some surfaces are actually quite nice to touch. The three rows of seats are very useful and the slightly high step is nearly perfect for people with kids who still need a booster seat.
Also, the Freestyle's exterior styling is terrific. A wagon/crossover with a sporty and modern look -- where do I buy one!!? Oh, wait -- it's got a noisy and horribly underpowered, obviously overtaxed engine. Great transmission, though. Let's see, good-looking and functional inside, sporty and modern-looking outside, smooth ride, excellent transmission. Yep, it's a great car alright -- too bad about that lame engine.
Hey, I've got an idea; why doesn't Ford buy engines from Nissan or Toyota? You know, the way GM buys engines from Honda for the Saturn Vue because it can't make adequate ones itself? Stick a 3.3-liter Toyota V6 in this thing and then we'll really have something. Without a truly new motor, the Freestyle is mediocre at best.
"We were out looking at a replacement for my wife's 2002 Escape as we want a vehicle with more fluff. We drove the Explorer and also the Cadillac SRX. The SRX was a nice car, but the finish work on the inside was poor for the high cost. We drove the Freestyle as an afterthought and were very pleased. It had a lot of power with the new CVT transmission and the SEL model had everything we wanted plus it was $15,000 retail less than the Cadillac. So far we are very pleased and it is easily accessible for an aging parent with support handles in the ceiling and on the front dash." -- Siberian, Oct. 3, 2004
"I've been driving a minivan for years and recently switched to a Freestyle. I was amazed to see the interior space. My sister who is 25 years old can sit in the third row very comfortably. Performance is also great. I don't know why a 3.0-liter engine is complained about by people. I didn't feel any shortage of power, not to mention acceleration. It's a wonderful car. I love it -- especially the fold-flat seats, neat interior and good fuel economy. Will there be a hybrid version?" -- wklee88, Sept. 22, 2004