Until 2003, the Honda Odyssey was the minivan to beat. Today, with the arrival of the redesigned '04 Toyota Sienna and Nissan Quest, the champion is no longer clear. The playing field has widened considerably, and Ford is the latest automaker to submit an updated entry.
Last redesigned in 1999, the Ford Windstar lacked many of the features consumers now consider necessary when shopping for a minivan. Does it have fold-flat seats, or cumbersome removable benches? Does it have more cupholders than available passenger seating? How about entertainment systems and storage cubbies? Actual driving performance aside, many of these questions are at the top of minivan shoppers' lists.
Ford went to work on these issues and more, and not just for its aging Windstar, but also for its Mercury minivan, the Villager. Sold from 1993-2003, the Villager was twin to the Nissan Quest. When Nissan went its own direction for 2004 with an all-new, all-Nissan Quest, Mercury was left without a minivan. And so for 2004, Ford is launching the all-new Freestar with a Mercury Monterey twin.
The previous Windstar came with a 3.8-liter V6 engine that was rated at 200 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque. The Ford Freestar now comes with two engine options -- a 3.9-liter V6 that produces 193 hp, and a 4.2-liter V6 that puts out 201 hp. We have not had an opportunity to experience the 3.9-liter version, but spent time behind the wheel of both a 4.2-equipped Freestar and its Mercury twin (which only offers the 4.2-liter engine). While the new Freestar and Monterey offer little more horsepower than the outgoing Windstar, the noticeable benefit of the new 4.2-liter engine is torque. The big V6 offers 263 lb-ft of torque, an increase of 23 lb-ft that should make the minivan feel quicker off the line, as well as while tooling around town. Our initial impression was favorable regarding quick-start power, but once the Freestar gets up to speed, there seems to be little additional power left for passing slower traffic. Also, the larger engine hasn't done consumers' pocketbooks any favors, as the EPA fuel mileage figures for the twin minivans are the lowest among new competitors at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway (they're still better than the Kia Sedona's 15/20 rating, though).
Both engines use the same four-speed automatic transmission, while all of the Japanese minivan competitors are now providing five-speed automatic shifters. The good news is that four-speed seemed adequately tuned to the Ford engine, with smooth, well-timed gear changes. Quick downshifts were much appreciated since the brakes seemed a bit soft initially, and not as linear as we would have liked. After noting our braking concerns, we checked the specification list and found that despite our criticism, the minivans got larger brakes this year -- four-wheel discs with standard ABS on all Freestars and Montereys.
We spent most of our time on the smooth, flat roads of Northern Michigan during our test-drive, and when it came to ride quality, found both the Freestar and Monterey to be agreeable traveling partners. Both vans provided a soft, comfortable ride for front and rear passengers. Although we still believe the Odyssey remains unbeaten with its carlike handling characteristics, we don't feel the Ford products offered any negative feedback, either on the straightaways or through tighter corners.
Ford already had a solid record where safety is concerned. Safety ratings for the Windstar included five-star awards for front- and side-impact protection, and Ford doesn't intend to break its streak anytime soon. Both new minivans offer a segment-exclusive Safety Canopy side curtain airbag system with a rollover sensor that protects all three rows of seating in side-impact collisions and rollovers and seat-mounted side-impact airbags for additional front-passenger protection. Three-point safety belts are standard in all seating positions, and there is a reverse-sensing system to sound the alarm if it detects an object or person on the street or in the driveway behind you. (The Monterey gets both front and rear parking sensors.) The side mirrors also have integrated turn signals, and the accelerator and brake pedals are height-adjustable, making it easier for drivers of shorter stature to find a safe driving position. Ford's AdvanceTrac stability control system, which continuously monitors the vehicle's path compared to driver's input, is also an available option.
On the outside, the Freestar is no conversation-provoking work of modern automotive art. Unlike some of its recently redesigned competition, especially the Nissan Quest, the new Ford is a minivan that looks just like, well, a minivan. The Freestar comes in five trim levels: S, SE, SES, SEL and Limited. Front, rear and side design cues help differentiate between models, with base models receiving body-color grilles and trim, midlevel sporting five-spoke alloy wheels and black lower grille and bumper treatments, and upper trims getting chrome details. At launch, 16-inch wheels are the only wheel option, but 17-inchers will be available later in the model year on SES, SEL and Limited models.
The Mercury Monterey comes in three available trim levels -- Convenience, Luxury and Premier. Besides the Mercury badging, the Monterey distinguishes itself from its Ford trim via a Mercury signature waterfall grille, satin aluminum trim and monochromatic body-side cladding.
While neither van's exterior styling is a radical departure from the Windstar, there is a long list of improvements inside the cabin. A new instrument panel demonstrates Ford's much touted commitment to improving interior materials and craftsmanship. Four attractive round gauges line up across the panel, and audio and climate control buttons are relegated to the center stack. In the Freestar Limited, as well as all Montereys, there is a classy chrome-rimmed, "Infiniti-esque" analog clock placed above the stereo head unit. Looking up, a flip-over "conversation mirror" is mounted above the rearview mirror, allowing drivers to oversee potentially rambunctious young-uns strapped into rear seats, while keeping an eye on the road.
With seven-passenger seating, the new minivans offer passenger space on par with the leading competitors, with the exception of the Toyota Sienna, which comes in an eight-passenger version as well. Both the front and rear seats are comfortable and well padded, as attested by one passenger who fell asleep in a second-row captain's chair during a portion of our test-drive. Another positive attribute that warrants mention is the tight and tomblike quietness of the Freestar's cabin, even at high speeds.
The Mercury Monterey has few distinctions over the Freestar, one being heated and cooled front seats. The system operates manually with two levels for both heating and cooling, or automatically due to the seats' link to the tri-zone climate control system. The Monterey's leather seats are perforated to help the warm or cool air reach the passenger immediately.
The updated cabin conveniences go beyond just comfortable seating. Although Ford is admittedly giving serious consideration to older "empty nesters," especially with the more luxury-oriented Monterey interior, plenty of family-friendly features are still available. Storage areas are comprised of a third-row seat bin (ideal for keeping small plastic Army men or Polly Pockets dolls from being tossed about the cabin), 10 cupholders which include 20-ounce bottle holders in each front doors and dual in-door map pockets stacked vertically. For securing other small valuables, there is a covered compartment on top of the dash above the center stack.
Besides moving people, minivans are most appreciated for their cargo-hauling capabilities. The previous Windstar managed 29 cubic feet of cargo space behind its third-row seat, but unfortunately in the redesign, the Freestar loses approximately three feet, with a capacity now of just under 26 cubic feet. By comparison, segment leaders manage to incorporate significantly more room, with the Sienna at nearly 44 cubic feet, the Odyssey at 38 cubic feet and the Quest with nearly 33 cubic feet. Of course, Ford has wisely equipped the third-row seat with the all-important fold-flat feature, and it is definitely as user-friendly, if not more so, than its closest competitors. Our only complaint is that the third-row seat folds as a one-piece bench, while the Sienna offers more versatility with a 60/40-split design. Advantages to the Ford design include headrests that needn't be removed, and a "tailgate" feature that allows the rear seat to flip over so passengers can face the rear hatch while the door is open station wagon-style. The second-row seats easily fold and tumble forward with the flick of just one lever, aiding in access to the rear bench. When using a second lever, they can easily be removed and stored with no additional tools required.
With the third-row seat stowed, and second-row seats removed, cargo capacity increases to only 134 cubic feet compared to 148 cubic feet in both the Sienna and Quest, and 146 cubic feet in the Odyssey. Currently, power operation is available for both sliding side doors, but a power liftgate won't be available until later in the year.
After considerable time behind the wheel, rifling through the interior and pouring over the specification books, we formed some definite opinions about the Freestar and Monterey. It has adequate accommodations for people, but less than the maximum ideal for hauling cargo. It has the largest engine in its class, which offers the highest torque rating, but the lowest horsepower compared to the offerings from Toyota, Nissan and Honda. While plenty of torque has its advantages for scurrying around town, adequate horsepower is still necessary for comfortably moving in and out of freeway traffic. It has an available DVD entertainment system, but no navigation system, a feature that has been seriously refined in the three competitors -- an item that is almost unforgivable to be missing from an options list. It has a flat-folding rear seat with easy access to the cargo area, but no option to reconfigure the seating positions as in the Sienna. Does it win with pricing? With Freestar base MSRPs ranging from $24,460 to $33,630, and Monterey pricing from $29,995 to $35,525, the Ford and Monterey are playing in the same ballpark with the Sienna ($23,495-$37,470); Odyssey ($24,950-$30,950); and Quest ($24,780-$32,780). After all of the cupholders and storage bins have been located, and the rear seat has been folded down a few times, it's time to consider actual driving performance. And among similarly priced minivans, the power generated by even the big 4.2-liter V6 engine simply doesn't measure up.