Freestyle is Ford's idea of 'crossover' vehicle

Friday, January 7, 2005

Freestyle is Ford's idea of a "crossover" vehicle

Nothing can be more daunting than planning and executing the annual family road trip adventure, and few things are more important to its success than your choice of vehicle. Have you noticed that lots of vehicles have plenty of room for the family, but no room for their luggage?

Riding on a platform borrowed from a Volvo XC90, and breathing through a grill reminiscent of Ford's own best-selling Explorer, the Freestyle combines the best attributes of an SUV, station wagon and minivan. Its three rows of seats accommodate six or seven passengers, while its expansive interior provides plenty of cargo space thanks to a deep well behind the third row. Like a minivan, the Freestyle has a low step-in height for ease of entry, and like an SUV it has generous headroom. With its foldaway seats it has the same interior flexibility as a minivan, and its high seating position and great view of the road mimic that of an SUV. Its optional all-wheel drive can take it places the typical minivan can't go, and its car-like ride can provide the comfort that many SUVs don't offer. What it doesn't have are a minivan's sliding doors or an SUV's thirst for fuel.

My Freestyle was equipped with top-of-the-line "Limited" all-wheel-drive trim and sported a glossy metallic Merlot paint job and pebbled leather interior. Ford's Duratec 3.0-liter V-6 engine mated to a new CVT (continuously variable transmission) powered it. But what really caught my attention were its huge 18-inch bright aluminum wheels fitted with sporty Pirelli tires. Bulging fender flares, a handsome roof rack and a bobbed tail end gave the newcomer a muscular look and dampened any thoughts that Freestyle is just a made-over minivan.

The interior was festooned with family "essentials" such as a $995 DVD family entertainment system, an audiophile sound system, and moon roof. Not so obvious were a traction control system, anti-lock brakes, a power driver seat recliner, power passenger seat, reverse sensing system, garage door opener, memory adjustable pedals and rear climate control with heat. If that's not enough to spoil you, keep in mind that the Limited comes with lumbar adjustments, heated front seats, keyless entry, dual front climate control, remote perimeter lighting, a security system, and many safety enhancements. The only thing missing was a navigation system, a feature not offered, but one Ford is working on.

Driving Freestyle

Pulling onto the highway, the first thing I noticed was the way the new CVT changes the character of this vehicle. Gone are the back and forth sweeps of the tachometer needle as the old-style transmissions hunted through their four or five gear ranges. This new transmission allows the engine to come up rapidly to its best RPM, and then it holds that engine speed as the car accelerates smoothly. Release some pressure on the accelerator and the CVT selects a gear ratio that enables the engine to slow down for better fuel economy. It all happens smoothly without jerks or sudden changes in sound. The Duratec engine's throttle is computer controlled, as is the CVT, and the computer can select from an infinite number of gear ratios, fuel ratios and power settings to provide the best combination of performance versus economy.

While some automotive journalists are complaining about the Freestyle's power-to-weight ratio (203 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque pushing 4,112 pounds of vehicle), I didn't find it to be the least bit "doggy." The big advantage the CVT has over old-style transmissions is that it allows the engine to run at its best RPM all the time, and that translates into performance that most families will find adequate, unless they intend to do some serious trailering -- towing capacity is only 2,000 pounds. The EPA's fuel economy estimates for all-wheel-drive Freestyles are 19 mpg/city and 24 mpg/highway (front-wheel-drive models get a 20/27 rating).

Freestyle's handling was agile considering its weight. Body roll isn't excessive, the steering is nicely progressive, and the ABS brought the vehicle to a secure stop. A generous 113-inch wheelbase and a European-type suspension gave Freestyle a comfortable ride and secure handling in every situation I encountered.

Ford hit the target in the comfort department, too. Freestyle's expansive cabin and big, supportive seats make the miles fly by. The driver's seat has six-way power adjustment, and the front passenger's has four, plus a manual recliner. The second-row captain's chairs have adjustable headrests and seat backs, and slide fore and aft. Larger families can opt for a bench seat for seven-passenger capacity. Third-row legroom is generous, making the rearmost seat a viable option for adults. Freestyle's seating is theater-style, with each row mounted slightly higher than the one in front of it.

My test vehicle was priced at $34,615 with options, and carried a 3 year/36,000 miles warranty.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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