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Freestar might be an unfamiliar name, but the minivan itself is recognizable as a Windstar. Ford left the exterior largely unchanged from its origins, but upgraded the interior. Unfortunately, Ford is still playing catch-up to Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Chrysler minivans. Prices: US base $24,460 to $32,945. Canada base $26,595 to $42,660. Warranty: Total Vehicle 3 yrs/36,000 miles. Warranty Canada: Total Vehicle 3 yrs/60,000 km.


Heritage

The 2004 Ford Freestar should look familiar to most buyers. It looks like... a Ford Windstar. That's because it is a Windstar, renamed because the Windstar had less than stellar sales appeal. So, goodbye Windstar that looked like a pot-bellied pig, and hello Freestar, that still has that plump, snout-to-the-ground look. But as was the case with the Windstar, the Freestar is a good, practical minivan, with low step-in for easy entrance and exit, and low lifeover for easy cargo loading. The Detroit company with America's number one selling truck and domestic car hopes this incarnation will do the same for minivan sales.

Coachwork

The familiar-looking 2004 Ford Freestar has a number of attractive assets. Its low height means even smaller folks have an easy time with entry and exit. Likewise, cargo is easily lifted into the rear cargo area. It can seat seven and finally has a fold-flat third-row seat. Power sliding side doors are available, and standard on the top model we tested, but the rear liftgate still has manual operation only (power is coming later in 2004, Ford says).

All is functional and attractive inside the 2004 Ford Freestar. There are two power outlets in front, one for the middle row of seats and yet another in the cargo bay. There are 10 cupholders and numerous places to stash small items, including an in-dash bin. The tested 2004 Ford Freestar Limited had leather seats at all positions. Less expensive models have bench seats behind the driver, while the Limited has second-row captain's seats. Passengers in the second- and third-row areas feature separate controls for both audio and air conditioning. It's a functional and attractive interior design.

On the Road

There are two V-6 powerplants offered; a 3.9-liter with 193 hp and a 4.2-liter with 201 hp. We tested the latter, with EPA fuel mileage estimates of 18 city, 23 highway. Acceleration is acceptable; 0-to-60 in slightly under 10 seconds. On top models, Ford adds to expected safety features with a full-length head curtain that deploys if a rollover is anticipated and a stability control program designed to prevent that rollover. The 2004 Ford Freestar Limited we tested also had side air bags. But a new Freestar badly flunked the bumper crash test done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A 5-mph bump did more than $1,000 damage both front and rear. Ford has gone to considerable lengths to quieten the interior of the 2004 Freestar. Sound-deadening materials are sandwiched in each wheel well, for instance. While this does result in a quiet -- though far from silent -- ride, it does nothing for noise pollution generated outside. Handling was good, traction control is standard. A 4-speed automatic is the only transmission available. Strangely unavailable are a navigation system or a satellite radio. The kids can, however, enjoy a DVD player option.

Summary

The trouble for Ford and its new Freestar models is that the company is shooting at a moving target. Honda, Toyota, Chrysler and Nissan all have superb minivans, some with features Ford still hopes to add to Freestars. Those buying a Freestar are likely to enjoy its comfort, find security in its safety features, and wonder what's so funny about the way some people think minivans look. Those seeking the cutting edge of auto technology will simply look elsewhere. And Ford will chase the leaders with the next incarnation of its *star series minivans.
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