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SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

1996 FORD WINDSTAR GL

    The front-wheel drive minivan, built on a car platform, takes the place of that icon of post-World War II America, the full-sized station wagon. As the wagon could hold a Cub Scout pack, the minivan can hold most of a soccer team. A minivan has as much floor space and far more headroom than any station wagon. Minivans have the old station wagons beat at the gas pump, but there is a tradeoff. The relatively small engines used in minivans are economical but preclude any serious performance or towing ability - when was the last time you saw a minivan towing an Airstream trailer? Practicality, not performance, is the word commonly associated with minivans.

    Ford's entry in the minivan class is the Windstar. It was introduced as an early 1995 model, and is larger than most other entries in the field. It could almost be called a midi-van. Its size gives it one of the most spacious interiors in minivandom, and the low floor and high seating position make it quite comfortable. It has some important changes under the hood for 1996. The standard engine in the GL model is now the 3.0-liter Vulcan V6. With 150 horsepower, it is nearly as powerful as the old 3.8-liter V6. Optional in the GL and standard in the upscale Windstar LX has a new version of that 3.8-liter engine that makes 200 horsepower, 45 more than before. With a multitude of available options, the Windstar can be configured for any minivan-sized passenger or cargo use.

    A morning spent driving an LX through the hills of eastern North Carolina during the national introduction last summer and a recent week in Northern California in a well-optioned GL showed the Windstar to provide a very good combination of practicality and performance.

APPEARANCE: The Windstar hasn't changed much outside since its introduction. Side body molding is now optional on the GL models instead of standard. My test example had it as part of an option package deal, and it gives protection against door dings in parking lots. Otherwise, the Windstar is a basic ovalized 2-box design, with sculpted steeply-sloping hood and windshield. Form follows function, but there is plenty of modern Ford style included. Tinted glass on the rear and side windows reduces heat buildup and gives the Windstar a classy, pillarless look.

COMFORT: The Windstar is every bit the modern family comfort machine. A low floor height makes access as easy as a car, and the high seats and large expanse of tinted glass make for good passenger comfort and commanding visibility. The interior materials in the GL are synthetic, which should be easily cleanable after any family disasters. There are two "captain's chair" front bucket seats, a two-passenger second-row seat, and a three-passenger third-row seat. Useful storage spaces and cupholders are strategically placed throughout the interior. Heat or air conditioning are available almost instantaneously, and vents and fan controls in the rear of the cabin ensure that all passengers are always comfortable. Cargo is easily loaded through the hydraulically-assisted lift gate.

SAFETY: Minivans are the quintessential family vehicle, and that means that safety is of paramount importance. The Windstar delivers, with standard equipment including dual airbags, 3-point outboard safety belts, 4-wheel antilock brakes, fuel pump shutoff on impact, side-impact door beams, a brake/shift interlock, and a child safety lock for sliding door. Traction control is optional.

ROADABILITY: Not surprisingly, the Windstar rides and handles like a car, not a truck. There is no truck in its ancestry. It is a unit-construction vehicle, and at the root of its family tree is a much-modified first-generation Taurus platform. The MacPherson strut front, beam axle rear suspension gives a very good ride. Handling is surprisingly good on mountain roads, and it is a great highway cruiser. Wind and mechanical noise are unobtrusive. The Windstar is a star in strong winds. Unlike most older, slab-sided vans, it has no wandering tendencies. It is solid, steady, and stable.

PERFORMANCE: Minivans have been criticized as lacking power. The venerable Ford 3.8-liter pushrod V6 has some new features to silence the critics. A split-port induction manifold that uses technology from the Taurus SHO engine helps boost horsepower to an even 200, a 30 percent increase. Torque is also up. It is the most powerful engine currently offered in a minivan. Matched with a smooth 4-speed automatic transmission, there is plenty of power for passing, merging, and hills. Trailers of up to 3500 pounds can be towed with the optional towing package.

CONCLUSIONS: The Ford Windstar combines a spacious interior and stylish exterior with class-leading power to make a functional minivan with no performance excuses and reasonable towing abilities.

			    SPECIFICATIONS
		    1996 Ford Windstar GL Minivan

Base Price                 $ 19,590
Price As Tested            $ 24,195
Engine Type                ohv 12-valve V6, 3.8 liter (232 cu. in.)
Horsepower                 200 @ 5000
Torque (lb-ft)             230 @ 3000
Transmission               4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length         120.7 in. / 201.2 in.
Curb Weight                3500 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower      17.5
Fuel Capacity              25 gal. (opt)
Fuel Requirement           unleaded regular
Tires                      P205/70 R15 Michelin XW4 m+s
Brakes, front/rear         antilock disc/drum, 
                              antilock disc/disc optional
Suspension, front/rear     MacPherson strut independent / 
                              coil spring beam axle
Drivetrain                 front engine, front-wheel drive

			     PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed     17/24/20
0 to 60 mph                       8.5 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                   17.1 sec
Towing capacity                   3500 lbs with towing package,
                                  2000 lbs standard

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