Famed Ford Tuner Proves Driving a Minivan Doesn't Have to be Boring
John Clor, Contributor
Let's face it: No matter how car-like today's minivans are, they're all still pretty dull to drive. Unlike buying a so-called "lifestyle" vehicle such as a high-powered sports car, luxury sedan or upscale SUV purchasing a "lifecycle" vehicle has more to do with pure need than with image. And most minivan shoppers are in the market mainly because their lifecycle dictates the need for practicality, not excitement.
For sure, minivans are an American automotive icon. The everyday utility and people-hauling capability of the minivan have made it the vehicle of choice for millions of "soccer moms" with young, growing families on the move. Unfortunately, driving a little "box on wheels" can be uninspiring, particularly to those who have enjoyed a sports car or sport sedan in a previous life. Consequently, we know of many "soccer fathers" who truly believe that the words "high performance" and "minivan" are mutually exclusive.
But well-known Ford performance tuner Kenny Brown isn't one of them. Brown, whose claim to fame has long been turning out race-bred, street-legal high-performance variants of just about any Ford product produced to date, is one of the few people who doesn't think that the term "muscle minivan" is an oxymoron. In fact, he's built one just to prove it.
All those years of turning out wickedly fast Mustangs for the racetrack have helped Brown develop his own formula for upgrading the performance of nearly anything on four wheels for the street. Many of his creations are custom-built dream machines that find their way into every enthusiast publication on the planet. But the fact is, Brown's Indianapolis-based Project Industries shop pays the bills by building high-performance versions of everyday cars and trucks - if not exactly for people like you and me, then at least for some of our well-to-do friends.
This time around, Brown assigned himself a difficult mission: "To build a sporty, eye-catching fun-to-drive minivan that is cool enough for dad to drive yet civil enough for mom to love." While that may sound a tad sexist, we think the appeal of a minivan like the Kenny Brown Supercharged Windstar crosses the gender lines - man, woman or Dennis Rodman. So when Edmund's was offered a test drive, we jumped at the chance to bring you a glimpse of what might well become a new niche within the minivan segment.
You've probably seen performance minivan prototypes before. They've been shown at major auto shows for years now - in fact, a sporty Dodge R/T show van and a high-tech Ford Windstar concept are making the rounds on the auto-show circuit as we speak. Some high-ranking auto executives think now that luxury minivans have been successful, sporty versions may be the next trendy spin-off.
But Kenny Brown's business depends on going beyond what the auto companies can do - especially when it has something to do with performance. So Brown applied his own brand of sporting enhancements to a 1999 Ford Windstar SE to see how it would work in the real world. Except this time, Brown's objective was not delivering his trademark tire-smoking, foot-to-the-floor power. After all, this is a front-wheel-drive minivan and NOT a rear-drive SVT Mustang Cobra.
Instead, the challenge was delivering the right amount of extra oomph at the right time. Adding a sudden burst of power through the front transaxle at launch would bring uncontrollable torque steer - not very practical. And putting the kick in the wrong place in the rev band could cause a loss of vehicle control at speed - not very safe. Brown's solution? A positive-displacement Eaton supercharger and custom intake. This setup bumps the Windstar's already-potent 200-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 to about 250 horses. Better still, it comes on seamlessly, providing just enough part-throttle, midrange power to make those merges onto the freeway a little easier, or those passes with a full complement of passengers and cargo a breeze.
On the exhaust side, Brown discovered that the Windstar comes from the factory with zoomy-looking 3-into-1 cast-iron manifolds, so an upgrade to tubular headers didn't seem worth the expense. But because most small-bore single exhaust systems are an engineering afterthought, he opted for a new, high-flow system with just the right look and sound. All new from the catalytic converter back, Brown's system utilizes a large, multi-chamber muffler that dumps into a massive, 3-inch primary tube to take spent gasses back to just above the rear axle. There, it splits into twin tubes that exit on either side of the rear fascia, via Mustang GT 2.5-inch polished stainless tips.
The sound isn't anything like the Mustang's V8. It has a distinguishable burble at idle fading to a muted bass tone on acceleration that competes with the supercharger's telltale whine. But because racy, dual-split polished pipes are absolutely unheard of on a minivan, the look alone is worth the price of admission.
Next it was a matter of putting that newfound power to the pavement. The answer was a Kenny Brown-tuned sport suspension featuring custom Eibach springs, a performance handling front sway bar and Koni Sport shocks. Bringing things to a quicker halt is a high-performance, four-wheel-disc brake system comprised of 13-inch Cobra rotors with twin-piston Cobra calipers and Euro-spec Windstar rear discs. It all rides on classy, five-spoke 18-inch chrome wheels wrapped in ultra-high-performance rubber.
Finally, to keep the four tires planted during hard cornering, Brown added another trademark upgrade with his own chassis support system, using his branded Extreme Subframe braces and heavy-duty front and rear cross-chassis load braces to dial-out flexing and stiffen the entire platform.
Overall, we found the ride too stiff and harsh for mom to love. But this vehicle's handling ability proved almost intoxicating for dad, who caught himself heading into corners faster and harder than minivans should be allowed to go. While such road prowess certainly adds to driving enjoyment, it also wreaks havoc with any groceries you may have piled into the rear cargo hold. (If only Ford had those plastic bag holders built into the rear seatback like Chrysler's minivans, maybe we wouldn't have clanged all the jars and cans together, crushed the potato chips and flattened the bread. Oh well.)
With improved power and handling comes the need for better seating to keep the driver firmly in place behind the wheel. So Brown's choice here was a set of Recaro LXF sport seats with inboard-mounted flip-up armrests. Nothing is lost to the factory's front captain's chairs, for not only are the Recaros covered with the same gray leather as the OE interior for a perfect match, but they're even mounted on Ford's own six-way adjusters. Beyond offering superior bolstering and comfort, seat warmers are included in case toasty buns are desired on cold mornings.
Of course, no interior upgrade would be complete without the latest in electronics. Brown's Windstar was fitted with a full-boogie Alpine Integrated Mobile Multimedia System with a dizzying array of concert-quality speakers. Included are an AM/FM stereo, in-dash mini-disc player and equalizer/amplifier, as well as six-disc CD changer (mounted in the center console for easy access), with controls built into the pop-up LCD video monitor and GPS navigation system.
Rosen Technologies supplied the rear-seating entertainment system, which includes twin ceiling-mounted, drop-down LCD-screen TVs, a VCR/player, remote control and a pair of wireless stereo headphones. TV signals are acquired from string-type web antennas mounted on the inside of both flipper rear-quarter windows. A few quick-reference cards helped acquaint us with use of the electronics, but the cost ($11,425 added to the sticker price) and complexity of all the gadgetry made them a case of pure overkill.
To set off all these upgrades with the right exterior look, Brown decided on a monochromatic theme painted in the factory's sinister metallic black. Shunning the boy-racer route, all the brightwork was removed except for the new-for-99 chrome grille, and a tasteful, body-colored rear roof-edge spoiler was added. And just in case the beefy chrome wheels and tires, twin exhaust ports and lowered stance didn't turn your head, Brown topped it all off with some windshield header/rear liftglass graphics and a set of understated front door and rear liftgate decals that simply read, "Kenny Brown / Supercharged."
If you think you've seen this van before, you probably have. It was tucked away in one of the many Ford displays at last year's SEMA show in Las Vegas, parked next to a placard that read, "Cool Enough for Dad to Drive." While it generated a positive response there, Brown's not sure there's enough interest in this kind of conversion to add it to his regular production lineup alongside Mustang Cobras, Expeditions and Explorers, and the odd F-Series truck or two. Packaging and price remain open issues to be resolved.
Brown starts with a 1999 Windstar SE with an MSRP of $27,060. His Base Performance Package adds the supercharger, exhaust and sport suspension for $11,560. That puts you at $38,620 before adding the rest of the performance options. Those include the wheel/tire upgrade for $3,530, the Recaro seats for another $3,500 and the bigger brakes add $1,990. When you toss in the chassis support system for $350, you're looking at another $9,370 in options, pushing the price tag to $47,990. Should you decide to go whole-hog and add all the high-tech electronic goodies, the as-tested price hits an eye-popping $59,415.
Wisely, Brown's not expecting many takers at that price or equipment level. "This Kenny Brown Windstar is an exercise to demonstrate albeit at the upper end that an exciting driving experience can be had in a minivan," Brown explained. "Its purpose is to show potential to minivan owners that, with a few well-chosen components, an otherwise ordinary minivan can take on a new spirit, a new look, and a new life to provide extraordinary driving feel."
As of this writing, Brown's Project Industries shop is planning to make many of the components available for those wishing to enhance their Windstar just a little bit - or a whole lot. And while the supercharger unit is a one-off, Brown said he'd commit to producing it if there's enough demand. He's also considering a naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V6 engine upgrade in case a customer would prefer having more cubic inches and torque in lieu of supercharging.
For those of you who are still shaking your head and asking, "Why a high-performance minivan?" Brown's answer is rooted in compassion for enthusiasts stuck driving one of the millions of minivans on America's highways. "I think some people unjustifiably surrender to the notion that once they are forced into a minivan by life changes, they are compelled to totally abandon the simple pleasures of a great driving experience," he said. "I just wanted them to be able to get out of a minivan and say, 'That was fun.' "
Well, Kenny, we'll be perfectly honest with you: We got out of your 1999 Kenny Brown Supercharged Windstar, and caught ourselves saying, "That was fun." We just wonder if Ford is listening.
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