2004 Ford Freestar SES

It was the Windstar, now is the Freestar. Replacing the first 4 letters of the name just doesn’t magically improve a flimsy product.

Background
This minivan was acquired as a rental vehicle with ~125 miles on the odometer. It stayed with us for two weeks. We drove approximately ~4,000 miles. We traveled from San Francisco to San Diego. Back from San Diego to Point Reyes, Yosemite, South Lake Tahoe, and various other trips within the Bay Area. We ripped it wide open on I-5, stuck in the famous Los Angeles traffic, tossed it around the twisty roads to Point Reyes, not to mention Yosemite, experienced how elevation affected its performance due to oxygen depletion on our way to Glaciers Point in Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe (Remember, a naturally aspirated engine loses about 4hp every 1000 ft in elevation) Plus a trip to IKEA to haul a 200Ibs bed frame. The majority of our trips in this minivan were with 6 average size adults.

Introduction
Ford replaced its Windstar with Freestar in 2004. This particular one was built in Canada. Ford calls the SES model the Sports Appearance Plus. It has a 3.9L 12 valves pushrod V-6 engine. The engine transversely displaced in the engine bay driving the front wheels. I believe it is the latest Windsor engine. The engine pumps out 193hp@4500rpm, and 240Ib-ft of torque @ 3750 rpm. The transmission is a 4 speed automatic with overdrive. Like most minivans, the shifter is located on the steering column. Traction is provided by a set of P235/60R16 tires, this particular one came with Goodyear Integrity. The chassis is supported by independent MacPherson strut suspension in the front corners. The rear is supported by torsion beam suspension with coil springs. Stopping power is generated from 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS.

Impression
Brakes and brakes, despite the Freestar equipped with 4-wheel disc brakes, the brake pedal required a lot of effort to slow down this 4,275Ibs vehicle. Braking is progressive and seemed to be linear, but its high effort operation left us questioning about its braking ability. The steering input is way too sensitive. Perhaps Ford’s plan was to dial in a sharper steering response to ease the maneuverability and to provide a sportier steering feel. So that even soccer dads will not complaint about the dull steering respond from a typical minivan of the past. But this set up became too sensitive that require a lot of attention and correction to maneuver the vehicle in a straight steady path especially at freeway speed. The steering ratio seems to be more suitable at twisty roads. That could be the inexpensive way to provide that sporty, direct steering feel. In my opinion Ford – over did it. The steering feedback is good, compare to the 1st generation Expedition where it felt like you are steering on a 1st gen. video game steering wheel without force feed back = lack of road feel.

When the vehicle is empty, with only the driver on-board of course, there has a lot of secondary vibration coming from the suspension especially from the live axle setup in the rear that made me thought that it maybe equips with leaf springs. The setting seemed to be on the stiff side, and the minivan’s handling is predictable and neutral with only the driver or with another front passenger. The harshness damps out with a heavier load on-board. With 6 passengers, the Freestar’s rear suspensions bottoms out 7 out of 10 times when we encounter speed bumps at parking lot speed at less than 5 mph. A bottom out suspension is not a very pleasant experience. The vehicle seems to be riding on a set of 15 years old worn out shocks at cruising speed. Its handling became unpredictable and understeers, which requires a lot of effort from the driver to provide a smooth journey. Combine with an overly sensitive steering wheel. It became a challenge for the driver. We found out that the best ride and handling quality can be achieved when there were four of us or equivalent to 550Ibs on-board.

The Windsor engine is relatively smooth and quiet at cruise speed, but it makes more noise than go when we punch the throttle to accelerate to freeway speed or passing. The engine doesn’t like to rev much. The transmission upshifts at about 4,500 rpm. At above 3,000 rpm, the engine noise is there but livable. At beyond 3,800 rpm, the engine is loud enough to let us all know it has a pushrod valvetrain. The engine noise constantly remains me that the Econoline cargo van is also a Ford product every time we hit the freeway on-ramp or accelerating. We averaged about 20mpg. With 7 passengers on board, I would question its ability to tow its 3,500Ibs towing capacity.

The transmission is relatively smooth, but there has a delay for almost a second for the transmission to respond when downshift or upshift manually. I generally would use engine braking by downshifting manually to decelerate at a long hilly decline. I did the same on our way back from Yosemite. With the questionable braking as mentioned earlier, I occasionally downshift manually at a decline to ease the stress on the brakes. But the delay of shifting caused the vehicle to gain speed from the decline. The delay just became annoying. Harshness between shifts is felt during hard acceleration with heavy load or at higher elevation. However, the delay between shifts maybe setup or programmed purposely to smooth out the harshness. That could be the inexpensive ways to provide comfort without heavily re-engineer the transmission.

The features on this particular model provide good comfort. The air conditioning is very good. It cools the roomy interior efficiently. There has no complaint of insufficient room with 6 average size adults. Seats provide sufficient support for long trip. The third row seat also provides good comfort – ample of headroom, and legroom. However, there have not much lateral supports in the bench seats. Very good visibility throughout the vehicle, no bind spots. The AM/FM/CD player provides standard sound quality. However, the driving position is a concern. We had a hard time on trying to adjust a suitable driving position. No matter, how we adjust the 8 way adjustable driver seat and the steering wheel angle. The throttle pedal will be too far away for a full throttle, the brake will be too close that require you to remove your ankle or move your entire leg to operate the brake pedal. The steering wheel is too close. Funny is that, the steering wheel angle adjustment is so unrefined that doesn’t allow fine adjustment. “Go down one notch is too low, go up one notch is too high”.

Workmanship is marginal compare to imports but acceptable for a domestic brand, but there are places that can be improve upon. The switchgears on the dash are much better than a lot of GM vehicles. Road noise is noticeable louder near third row seat, very quiet on smooth asphalt surface, but became very noisy on coarse surface. Wind noise is non-existing. Gauge cluster are very legible, regardless of day or night. Function controls are very self explanatory. The functionality of minivans is tremendous. It can haul and swallow a good portion of commodities with the second and third row seats removed or folded away. The same goes for Freestar. Its third row seat can be easily folded away to a storage basin by the tail lift gate. The second row seat can be folded down or removed from the cabin. It swallowed a 200Ibs bed frame from IKEA without any problems.

Overall Impression
Scoring System:

Performance & Acceleration: 4.5
Comment: Making freeway entry, passing, and merging a challenge.

Engine: 4.5
Comment: Pushrod, 12 valves, 3.9L with only 193hp and 240Ib-ft of torque! Truck like noise and vibration.

Handling & Cornering: 4.5
Comment: A lot of body roll, overly sensitive steering.

Brake Feel: 4.5
Comment: Poor!

Ride Characteristic: 5.5
Comment: It is hard to achieve a supportive ride in a minivan with a wide range of loading conditions. But at least it shouldn’t bottom out.

Interior Comfort: 9
Comment: No complaints from passengers. Well done.

Workmanship: 5.5
Comment: Some of the areas can be easily improved upon. Marginally put together.

Functionality: 7.5
Comment: Very user friendly, typical minivan like.

Technology: 3.5
Comment: No fancy electronics, Pushrod 12 valves.

Afterthoughts
This is a very practical minivan that gets the job done. It is not technologically advanced, but practical enough for soccer moms to haul their soccer teams, and still have plenty of room for gardening supplies. With ~$27,000 on the price tag, I would probably go with a 240hp, dual overhead cam, V6, – Nissan Quest. END