Overview

What you're looking at here is a minivan that al-most wasn't. And if the Aerostar looks like a minivan you might want to own, you can thank your Ford dealer that it's still with us.

When Ford's new front-drive Windstar was ready for production, the company planned to drop the rear-drive Aerostar from its lineup. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with the Aerostar, it was a clear shortage of production facilities - a factory gap.

The drop may have made good business sense to Ford, but not to Ford dealers, who complained long and loud that taking the Aerostar out of the game would send their rear-drive customers straight to General Motors' Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari.

Ford is good at listening to its dealers, as well as to its customers. And as a result, the Aerostar survived.

Why is a rear-drive minivan important? Because when it comes to heavy jobs, particularly towing, rear-drive beats front-drive every time.

Like the Astro and Safari, the Aerostar is a workhorse. It's roomy and comfortable enough for family travel. But it doesn't have the carlike feel of the front-drive minivans. If that's your priority, there are plenty to choose from, including two very good ones from Ford.

On the other hand, when the loads and/or trailers start getting heavy, the Aerostar is one of your best bets.

Walkaround

The reason why rear-drive is good for towing all has to do with Mr. Archimedes and his principles of leverage.

The higher the weight of the trailer, the higher its tongue weight - the part that attaches to the tow vehicle's hitch. The higher the tongue weight, the higher the leverage on the tow vehicle's rear end, which in turn tends to raise the front end of the vehicle.

When this occurs with front-drive, even slightly, it affects the vehicle's front suspension geometry, which, in turn, affects handling and traction. And as you might guess, the effect is not positive.

So that's why the Aerostar has a higher maximum towing capacity - 4400 lb. - than anything in the front-drive arena.

The Aerostar also offers the availability of full-time all-wheel drive, which has obvious advantages in climates that have real weather. However, the system does add about $2000 to the bottom line.

Keeping the Aerostar around meant simplifying the model range. It will still be offered in standard and extended-length (stretched by 15.4 in.) versions, and there will still be a cargo van (standard length only). However, the basic XL and Eddie Bauer models have been dropped - only the midrange XLT survives. The 5-passenger version is gone, too. All Aerostars will have seating for seven.

A positive feature of the reshuffling is that the better-equipped XLT costs about the same as the '94 XL.

Powertrain options are largely unchanged from '94. The base engine is a 3.0-liter V6 with a 4-speed automatic transmission. The 5-speed manual transmission, which was previously standard equipment, has been dropped.

There's considerably more muscle on tap in the optional 4.0-liter V6, which we recommend. However, it's available only in the extended-length Aerostar, and it's paired with a heavy-duty version of the 4-speed automatic.

Interior Features

You sit high in the saddle inside an Aerostar, with a commanding view of the road ahead. That's a trait that's helped lure millions of Americans into trucks, and it's appealing here.

Ford seats are generally pretty good, and the optional quad captain's chairs in our test van were particularly comfortable for lengthy excursions.

Roominess is another Aerostar strong suit. Second- and third-row legroom is good even in standard-length Aerostars, and it was excellent in our stretched tester - considerably better than the Windstar, for example, which is the current legroom leader among front-drive minivans. For family or carpool use, that's a very telling plus.

Another plus is the Aero-star's cargo capacity. With all its rear seats removed, there's a 139.3-ft. flat-floored cargo well back there, just a tad smaller than in the Windstar.

The extended Aerostar expands this volume potential considerably, to 167.7 cu. ft.

A downside to this part of the Aerostar story is seat removability. It takes a little wrestling to get the seats out of there, and it's a two-person job. The Windstar's seats are easier to extract, and the GM front-drive minivans - Chevrolet Lumina, Pontiac Trans Sport, Oldsmobile Silhouette - are the easiest of all.

Another quibble with the interior was the placement of the power-window switches - low in the door panels, making them a little awkward to operate. A bigger quibble, however, is how difficult it is to get to the engine. There's not much room under the hood, and it requires real dexterity to reach the engine through the little access panel that's just below the dashboard.

Unless you're a home mechanic, this won't affect you much. However, considering how high service-facility labor rates have become, it could affect your checking balance if something breaks.

The Aerostar's major safety features are good, but not quite state of the art. There's a driver's airbag, but a passenger's airbag will have to wait for a redesign.

This is something that wasn't on the planning schedule, because Ford expected to drop the Aerostar. It's back on again, obviously, but it'll be awhile, certainly no later than the 1998 model year. That's when federal standards will require dual airbags in all minivans.

Ford has added side-impact door beams for 1995, and there's also an integrated child safety seat option. Anti-lock braking, however, continues to be rear-wheel only, though it's standard for all models.

Driving Impressions

The Aerostar's ride quality isn't as smooth as the Windstar's. It feels more like a van than an automobile in this regard, al-though it's not what we'd call harsh, and it's thoroughly comfortable in freeway cruising.

Handling, however, is surprisingly good. Like all tall vehicles, there's body roll during cornering, but not as much as we've experienced in many other minivans. The Aerostar's relatively firm suspension and sturdy chassis lend a sense of control to all maneuvers.

Rear-wheel drive doesn't offer the kind of wet-weather traction you get with front-wheel drive, of course, but on dry pavement the Aerostar tracks through corners with more authority than its front-drive counterparts.

Our test van's 4.0-liter V6 pulled with a will, and we think it's a much better bet than the standard 3.0-liter. This is the same engine used in the Explorer sport/utility, and it has the kind of low-rpm muscle needed for hard work.

The V6 offered in the Astro and Safari has a little more grunt, and it can haul even heavier loads. But the distinctions in all-around driving are pretty subtle.

Summary

We can see why Ford dealers wanted to keep this van in the lineup. It's very different from the Windstar. Like all the front-drive minivans, the Windstar is essentially a tall, roomy, front-drive station wagon, while the rear-drive Aerostar is more trucklike, with a stronger work ethic.

GM's Astro/Safari twins offer more power and higher load ratings, but the Aerostar is a little more modern and a little better looking. Both manufacturers offer all-wheel drive, and both offer plenty of comfort and convenience extras.

So the choice gets to be a matter of what's important to you. But isn't it nice that the choice still exists?

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