B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
Summer. To a 10-year-old boy, that word holds special magic. Summer is the time of year when the most pressing thing on this kid's mind was whether to play G.I. Joe in the woods, or catch crayfish in the pond. To a college student, summer is equally magical. Instead of thinking about crayfish and G.I. Joe, however, thoughts are occupied with less prim pastimes such as weekend-long keggers at a friend's house, long days water skiing on glass smooth lakes, and outrageous road trips to Mexico for cheap Tequila and tacky Aztec idols for the pad.
Oh how the times have changed. Unfortunately, summer no longer means a three-month reprieve from responsibilities. Sure, things slow down a bit, and it is easier to sneak out of the office on a Friday afternoon to get ready for the weekend's barbecue, but for most responsible adults summer just means business as usual, with an occasional flowered shirt thrown in to remind us of the crazy good times we used to have.
Lately, summer has come to symbolize one long, hot moving day. Nearly every time I turn around, someone is moving. First, was Editor-in-Chief, Chris Wardlaw. Kind of hard to turn down the boss. Second, was myself. Definitely couldn't weasel out of that one. Next, some friends that helped us move had to relocate. Not helping them in their hour of need when they so gallantly assisted us would probably result in some Karmic curse that would damn us to an existence as a cockroach in our next life.
The cars of summer are different now, too. BMW Z3s may look good, and are great fun on a twisty road, but they are of little use to the family that is stopping by Builder's Square for garden supplies, or for the unlucky fool who has decided that July is a good time of year to move. Recognizing the many projects that lay ahead of us, we passed on the Mustang convertible that Ford offered us, opting instead for an unexciting but highly utilitarian Ford Windstar GL.
When the Windstar arrived just prior to moving day, we were surprised to find it painted a deep caramel color. We admit that we are not big fans of various shades of brown, and this color rendered the minivan a shapeless blob more akin to something that needs flushing than driving. Despite this, we were able to put the Windstar to mean use in our moving efforts. With 144 cubic feet of cargo space, the Windstar was able to swallow our medium-sized couch, our little-used exercise equipment, and piles of clothing; allowing us to save money on our U-haul rental by going with a smaller model.
One thing that needs mentioning in this discussion of the move is the removability of the Windstar's rear seats. Lacking rollers like the Chrysler minivans, or lightweight modular units like the new GM minivans, the overweight Ford's seats feel like they will send you to the chiropractor when you try to wrangle them from their anchor points. In a flurry of vain exhibition, I was able to remove the rear seats from the Windstar unassisted. Let it be known, though, that I probably came within a hairsbreadth of giving myself a hernia the size of a grapefruit. As a result, I can attest that the commercials showing a petite woman flipping, folding, and lugging the Windstar's rear chairs around without breaking a sweat or losing her breath are pure balderdash.
As evidenced by its cargo carrying capabilities, the Windstar is roomy. Comfortable seating for a driver and six passengers is the order of the day. Convenience features like the optional rear climate and audio controls will quell protests from the back of the bus, as will the exceptional views afforded by the acres of windshield and side glass. The driving position of the Windstar is surprisingly good, offering a commanding view of the road, and controls that are within reach without leaning. Steering wheel mounted cruise controls and large dials for the HVAC system are a nice touch, but we take issue with the miniscule radio buttons that divert too much attention away from the road when drivers attempt a station change. We are huge fans of the overhead console-mounted spyglass, which allows parents to keep track of their kids' shenanigans without adjusting the rearview mirror or looking over their shoulder.
The powerplant occupying the Windstar's engine compartment has to be its best feature. Gutsy and willing, the optional 3.8-liter unit found in our tester never left us wanting at stoplights or freeway entrance ramps. Handling is not the Windstar's strong suit, lacking the sportiness that is evidenced by the class-leading Chrysler minivans. Understeer is heavy and noticeable, the body leans excessively under modest cornering loads, and the suspension transmits every road imperfection directly to the occupants' derrieres. Our Windstar also seemed to have something amiss in its numb rack-and-pinion steering setup. A constant list towards the right curb had us navigating this barge with both hands at all times.
There has been much argument about the Windstar's lack of a driver's side sliding door. General Motors, Honda, Isuzu, Mazda, and Chrysler all have some sort of left side passenger portal, and industry pundits have criticized this obvious shortcoming since the Windstar's 1995 introduction. In an effort to remove some of the egg from its corporate face, Ford came up with the King Door for 1998. The King Door, or Family Entry System in Blue Oval parlance, is merely an oversize driver's door and a slide-forward seat that allows passengers to clamber aboard from the right side. Sounds good in theory, and Ford is capitalizing on the idea by claiming that one less door is one less hole for kids to fall out of when tooling down the freeway. In reality, however, the King Door is a flop because of its massive bulk. Try opening it wide enough for kids to clamber aboard, and you are likely to see your insurance rates climb through the stratosphere as you pay for the dented fenders and scratched paint of the cars in the next parking space. According to my Editor-in-Chief, who has just become a proud pappy, the King Door has been of no use when loading and unloading their daughter's car seat into the second row bench. For the record, Chris claims that he doesn't see the benefit of a sliding driver's side door either, claiming that it is just as easy to lug the baby in and out from the right side of the car. His points about not having younger kids open a left side door and step out into traffic are also well received. The entire 4th-door controversy becomes moot in the year 2000, when Ford will release a four-door version of the Windstar.
Enough about the darn door; one reason that parents should look at the Windstar is because of its outstanding crash test scores. Five stars for front seat occupants mean that mom and dad have an exceptional chance of walking away from a frontal collision. The Windstar is also the only minivan that received a score of "good" in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's 35-mph offset frontal crash test into a fixed barrier. This is particularly impressive when compared to the mediocre combined scores the Chrysler and GM minivans received on the same tests.
The Windstar is not likely to win any beauty contests or road rallies, but it is safe, comfortable transportation for those families who need room to stretch out. The Windstar's powerful engine is enough to tempt some buyers on its own. Those who need more, however, can check out the tire smokin' 3.8-liter unit that is standard on the LX and available on the GL. All in all, the Windstar is a good van. The minivan market is crowded these days, though, and good is not always good enough. Check out the Windstar if safety and straight-line speed are high on your list of priorities. Leave it off your list if you are more worried about style, functionality, and handling.
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