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New Car/Review

1997 Ford Windstar GL

by John Heilig


ENGINE:             3.8-liter V-6
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:  200 hp @ 5,000 rpm/225 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION:       Four-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY:       17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, 16.8 mpg test
WHEELBASE:          120.7 in.
OVERALL LENGTH:     201.2 in.
OVERALL HEIGHT:     68.0 in.
OVERALL WIDTH:      74.3 in.
FUEL CAPACITY:      20.0 gal.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY:   159.5 cu. ft. (max.)
TIRES:              P215/70R15
INSTRUMENTS:        Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, 
                    water temperature, exterior 
                    temperature, digital clock.
EQUIPMENT:          Power windows, power door locks, 
                    power mirrors, cruise control, 
                    air conditioner, overhead console, 
                    luggage rack, privacy glass, 
                    AM-FM stereo radio with cassette, 
                    anti-lock braking, dual air bags.
STICKER PRICE:      $24,575

When first Chrysler and then General Motors came out with "four door" minivans, Ford was sort of left behind with its "three door" Windstar. While the Windstar is a great van, it was now in probably last place in the minivan races.

Ford had an interim solution, which is installed in the vehicle we are testing this week. We know, that in the 1999 or 2000 model year Ford will have a four-door Windstar with powered doors on both sides. But that car is still in development. The interim Windstar, however, is an excellent solution and is less of a compromise than one might have expected.

Ford has retained the structural integrity of the Windstar by not creating a big hole behind the driver's door. In order to gain access to the rear seat from the driver's side, Ford has installed a tilting sliding driver's seat, much like you'd see in a better coupe or in the second row of seats in a three-row sport utility. With the seat tilted forward, people can easily enter and exit the van from the driver's side, and it's also possible to toss a golf bag or briefcase back there.

True, you don't have complete access to the rear as you would with a door, but you're not stuck with just a panel that won't do anything for you. The moving seat is an asset.

We checked it several times with back seat passengers. And even though I had to twist an arm or two to get the passengers to exit through the driver's door, once they discovered it they weren't shy about using it. In fact, Ford introduced this vehicle at its annual Christmas holiday celebration in Dearborn. Exiting from the vehicle were a half dozen Detroit Red Wing players. While they weren't in full uniform, they're still big boys, and they also exited with ease.

The main attraction for the Windstar is not just that sliding seat. Windstar is a solid front-wheel drive minivan in the standard mode. It is powered by a 3.8-liter V-6 engine that is rated at 200 horsepower, one of the most powerful among minivan engines. The engine drives the front wheels through a four-speed automatic gearbox. In our tester we had all the power accessories needed. Performance was very minivan-like, with a plus to the power side.

I'm not one who's going to tell you that driving a minivan is just like driving a car. It isn't. But the Windstar is definitely in the middle of the minivan range and was a pleasure to drive.

I liked the sculpted effect on the dash and instrument panel. I think it's tastefully done and gives the front seat passengers a pleasant view in front of them. There's an almost flat portion of the dash in front of the passenger that makes it tempting to put objects there, such as coffee cups. Fortunately, Ford looked ahead and made the area less-than flat, so you can't put something there that may later get thrown at you if the airbag goes off.

Another neat feature of the Windstar is what we called the "baby sitter mirror." Mounted above the standard rear-view mirror in the overhead console is a convex mirror that lets Mom or Dad check on what's happening in the back of the van. We took our 26-year-old daughter and her fiance on a few trips and they didn't even know we were checking on them, so it is a useful spy tool.

While the Windstar may have lost a bit to the competition in the door wars, Ford rebounded quite well with its foldaway front seat that provides access to the rear seat from the driver's side. The Windstar minivan is a good solid minivan. If you believe the safety ratings, it is the safest minivan, but even the safest vehicles can lose duels with bigger trucks.