Comfort and performance.
by John Rettie
Base Price (MSRP) $21,990
As Tested (MSRP) $32,330
Ford's Windstar is equipped well, and that's an understatement. It comes standard with a strong, 200-horsepower V6, room for seven, and enough options to satisfy anyone. Plus, the Windstar has an excellent government crash test rating.
Like most modern minivans, the Windstar offers power-sliding rear doors. However, the Windstar is the only one with available power-adjustable pedals. Short and tall drivers should be able to adjust the seats and pedals for the safest, most comfortable driving position.
Changes for the 2001 model year include a new transmission, revised front styling, an optional stability control system, and a new Sport model.
All Windstars come with air conditioning, 3.8-liter V6 engine, antilock brakes (ABS), and dual airbags.
With seating for seven, the three-door Windstar LX starts at $21,990. The Windstar LX four-door model starts at $24,805. The rest of the four-door line includes the Windstar SE Sport ($27,240), SE ($28,400), SEL ($30,920) and Limited ($33,570). The Sport model features fog lights, painted bumpers and body side moldings, 16-inch alloy wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The 2001 Windstar includes a redesigned front end appearance. Other than that, the look has not changed much since it was first introduced in 1995, but it still looks contemporary.
Windstar appears a little over-bodied. When bigger fender flares were added the track was not increased so the wheels do not fill them as well as before -- even with the bigger tires on the SEL.
Ford and Mazda have adopted Chrysler's design for sliding doors by neatly hiding the runners along the lower edge of the rear side window instead of being gouged out of the body side panel. This gives the Windstar a less utilitarian, more upscale look. Power operation for the dual sliding doors is optional on the SE Sport and SE models, and standard on the SEL and Limited versions.
Power-operated doors allow opening the doors by the remote key fob from a distance, which is a real benefit when you've got an armload and it's raining. It's also nice for those who find opening and closing the doors a bit strenuous. The one shortcoming is that they move more slowly than manually operated doors, which can be closed in literally no time at all. It takes a few seconds for the electric motor to close the doors. Kids love the power doors. A safety feature automatically stops the doors from closing if any object, such as a child's leg, is encountered as they close.
The Windstar is available in one length. It is among the largest of the minivans, and is directly comparable to the Dodge Grand Caravan, the Chrysler Town & Country, and the Honda Odyssey. Windstar's total interior volume with seats removed is nearly identical to these big minivans.
Starting at the front, the Windstar has a nicely designed and substantial dashboard that wraps around the driver. This positions the radio and climate controls within easy reach. Two cupholders are attached to a tray that slides out; spring-loaded sides allow them to accommodate a variety of drinking containers.
A convenient wide-angle mirror can be used to keep an eye on what's going on in the rear seats. Another unique option is a small voice recorder attached to the sun visor above the driver. It can be used to quickly record notes and other ideas that might come to mind while driving.
The available power-adjustable pedals are very useful in the Windstar. At the touch of a button, a driver with short legs can move the pedals nearer to the seat. This allows the driver to sit farther from the steering wheel, which not only improves control but also lessens the potential for injury from the airbag going off in an accident.
The SEL we tested came with a center console on the floor between the two front seats. In many ways this is inconvenient as it makes it difficult for adults to walk back to the rear of the vehicle. Of course it doesn't upset kids as they just clamber over it. Fortunately it is optional on all models.
A handy option (especially if you have children) is the available entertainment center, which deploys from the overhead console and features an LCD TV screen, VHS tape player and ports for video games. This $1295 option is a boon for long trips with the kids, virtually eliminating the question, "How much farther?" The system includes a pair of headphones so the driver and front-seat passenger do not have to listen to whatever movie is playing in the rear cabin.
The center row is available as a pair of bucket seats or a bench seat that can be positioned on the left or right depending on which door one wants to use for access to the third row. The third row is the usual bench seat for three people. It now comes with small rollers that make it slightly easier to remove. It weighs about 100 pounds, which makes it a two-person job for removal. It is fixed to a track so it can be moved up to seven inches giving more rear luggage space or rear seat legroom depending on ones needs for the day. It can also be fixed in the same attachment points in place of the second row of seats if five seats and lots of cargo space are needed.
The seat backs fold down to provide a flat space with tables and more cupholders. Rear climate controls are available as an option as well as radio controls for separate rear use of the cassette while the front is switched to the radio. Kids love the spacious feel throughout the Windstar while adults appreciate the generous legroom and headroom, especially in the center two bucket seats. Access to the rearmost seats is not as easy with the second sliding door unless the center seat is moved to one side, which precludes access from that side.
Overall, the Windstar is a convincing family vehicle offering maximum versatility. The addition of the second sliding door actually provides slightly more interior space but loses a storage pocket.
The big V6 makes the Windstar one of the quickest minivans available, and makes for a satisfying driving experience. It's amazing when one realizes that the acceleration of the Windstar with the 3.8-liter engine is the same as that of a hot sports sedan 16 years ago. Even with a full load of passengers the Windstar has enough power to allow for safe passing. (The standard engine is a 3.8-liter V6, which produces 200 horsepower; the weak 3.0-liter V6 was dropped for 2001.)
At times the transmission shifts a little abruptly. The new transmission, debuting for the 2001 model year, may alleviate this problem. Otherwise the Windstar's powertrain performs smoothly, although it can be a little raucous at high revs. Steering is about right with some feedback to let the driver know what's going on. The ride is smooth thanks to the longest wheelbase of any minivan and it is certainly a lot smoother than in any sport-utility vehicle. Likewise the handling, while not as crisp a sedan, is more stable than an SUV.
The SEL model comes with fatter tires (225/60R16) and bigger wheels (16-inch), which helps improve handling and stability substantially. Yet this package adds very little noise or ride harshness.
One useful option is the reverse sensing system. A beeper sounds at an increasing pace when backing up toward a solid object such as a wall or a child on a bicycle. It may seem silly at first, but we really like this feature. Rearward visibility is limited and distance is difficult to judge because the back of the vehicle is such a long way from the driver. We find the reverse sensing system of benefit even when parallel parking on tight streets and backing up in crowded parking lots. It's amazing how often people will walk behind or drive up and stop behind a big vehicle when it's backing up.
Ford has continued to add to the Windstar's already long list of available safety equipment. Offering traction and stability control, front-passenger side airbags and the aforementioned reverse sensing system, and combining those with a five-star government crash test rating, it's easy to see why the Windstar makes for a fantastic family vehicle. So, the Windstar is safe, roomy, has a versatile seating arrangement, and offers a rear-seat entertainment system. If you've got kids, this minivan should be on your list.
In fact, it's almost too good for the kids -- a luxuriously appointed Windstar Limited is more appropriate for taking four to six adults on a long journey or downtown to the opera.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.