Don’t count the minivan out yet. With newly re-designed models from both Toyota and Nissan already out this year and 16 other new or re-designed models coming before 2006, there must be plenty of life left in the segment.
But the resuscitation of the minivan segment isn’t coming in the form of a mass-exodus of soccer moms ditching their SUVs. Industry research shows that a lot of baby boomers who owned minivans during their child-rearing years are coming back to the vehicles for their utility, ease in ingress and egress and that eversought- after car-like ride.
“Plus,” says Steve Lyons, president of the Ford division, “they’re great for carrying your friends and going to dinner.
“If you stand back and look at the minivan business,” Lyons continues, “there were over 1.1 million minivans sold in this country a year ago and it’s likely to stay that strong for the foreseeable future.”
In fact Lyons optimistically predicts that the segment might see a little growth.“We sold 142,000 Windstars last year.” Lyons says, “We expect to up it a little with the new Freestar.”
This vehicle has been extensively re-engineered for 2004. While Freestar carries over Windstar’s body-side and door stampings, it sports new stamped-steel front fenders, hood and hatch and new front and rear fascias.
|An all new interior is simple, functional and quiet.|
The handle for the rear lift-gate has been moved out from under the license plate cover and is now a much larger square handle mounted on the center of the gate, that’s easy to grab and pull. “A lot of times customers have shopping bags or kids in their arms and they want to get the liftgate open easily,” says DuComb. Delphi will supply a power lift gate that will be available later in the model year.
The front suspension is all new. Ford went from an A-arm type suspension to a reverse “L” lower control arm. This allowed more room for a larger engine cradle with a liquid-filled engine mount that isolates engine noise and vibration from the cabin and a powertrain roll restrictor that eliminates the jerking motion that occurs during shifting events as the power train jounces around.
Engine noise was reduced by adding a freeflowing intake manifold to the 3.6L and 4.2L V-6s. The oil pan, exhaust manifolds and transmission housing have been reinforced with ribs for added strength. The exhaust manifolds are also shielded. DuComb says that all of those improvements added up to a 25 percent reduction in radiated noise.
|NVH was of the utmost importance on this project. Rieter Automotive Systems, of BMW 5 Series fame, was brought in to do sound dampening. What would a minivan be without plenty of cupholders and storage bins?|
Freestar’s interior is all-new. Cabin NVH was improved by reducing the airflow by 50 percent. Two air extractors were installed at the rear of the vehicle, under the rear fascia, to pull the air down the sides instead of letting it flow through the middle. DuComb says that airflow and air movement are an important aspect of NVH.
“Reducing the amount of airflow not only eliminates wind noise,” he adds, “but eliminates side window fogging and allows for faster warm-up in the winter and cool-down in the summer.
“This is the first program where Ford has paid so much attention to air flow,” DuComb says. “Airflow was a very important part of our NVH strategy on this program.”
Seal design is of utmost importance when controlling airflow. Engineers worked extensively with the body assembly plant making sure that body tolerances were tightened up and that uniform seal gaps were maintained around the body.
“A good measure for getting an indication of how well seal design is and how much noise, vibration and harshness you’re going to get,” says Barb Samardzich, executive director for small FWD and RWD vehicles, “is the amount of air that flows in and out of the vehicle.” Cabin airflow is measured by pumping the cabin full of air, measuring the PSI going in and coming out.
“Our cubic-feet-per-minute is substantially lower than our competitors that we’ve tested,” says Samardzich.
Ford called on Rieter Automotive Systems, a global supplier of acoustic and thermal management systems, to develop an insulated sound package. Freestar has a double dash pad and specially-designed carpeting and padding were used throughout the cabin.
Engineers at Ford’s Advanced Engineering Center used laser holography to take an image of vibrations created by the minivans body. By using this image they were able to target specific areas that needed acoustic damping pads.
Freestar is equipped with a dual-stage driver’s side airbag and a seat position sensor that measures the driver’s distance from the steering wheel. The right front passenger seat is equipped with an occupant classification sensor that calculates the weight of the occupant, detects if the passenger is belted or not and depending on the data collected decides what level of airbag deployment needs to be executed to protect the passenger.
Freestar also has optional side-impact chest air bags and a roll-over safety canopy developed in conjunction with TRW. The dual-function side-curtain system is supplied by Autoliv. Accelerators mounted around the cabin deploy the side curtain upon impact or roll-over. If the vehicle continues to move, the side curtains will stay inflated for up to six seconds.
|Third row seat has built-in headrests.|
Freestar comes standard with a back up warning system and Freestar owners can opt for adjustable pedals and self-sealing tires. Freestar’s suspension was re-engineered to improve ride and handling. The MacPherson strut front suspension has liquid-filled rear lower control arm bushings. Sheer-style front sub frame mounts aid steering control and provide a comfortable ride.
The semi-independent twist beam rear suspension is further stiffened with a pan hard rod. Shocks have been tuned for a smooth ride and superior body control, eliminating body roll when cornering.
The power assist rack and pinion steering system was retuned for Freestar. The system has new gearing and valving with a stiffer intermediate shaft, new power boost curve and improved alignment settings for a good on-center feel. Steering effort builds progressively off-center creating a feeling of stability when driving at higher speeds, yet making it easier to maneuver into tight parking spaces.
|The second row seats fold and tumble and can be removed.|
If the system senses that the vehicle is deviating from the driver’s intended path, brake pressure is applied to the appropriate wheel to help stabilize the car (outside front wheel for under steer, inside rear wheel for over steer). The system can also reduce engine power if necessary.
DuComb says that Ford considered an AWD option at the onset of the program. The idea was scrapped due to the extra cost of redesigning the platform to accept the system. There would also have been extra costs relating to manufacturing assembly time and the cost of tooling and manufacturing extra parts. DuComb says that the program team felt that they could do everything with AdvanceTrac at a considerable cost savings.
The Freestar interior has been completely re-designed. The new IP is clean and functional and features a small storage compartment built into the top. That’s just a miniscule piece of the overall storage system, a necessity in a minivan. There are storage pockets on all the door inners, and the cup holders (ten in all) on the front door will hold 20-ounce bottles. Limited models include a kangaroo pouch on the front of the passenger seat.
Dual second row captains chairs, standard on SEL and Limited models, fold and tumble for easy access to the third row seat. With safety in mind, engineers installed a hydraulic piston so the seats won’t tumble back on young hands and legs, but need to be pushed back into position.
|Third row seat can either fold away for extra storage or fold down for tailgating. When the seat is in use the empty space can be used for extra storage.|
The 2004 Freestar has a third row bench seat that folds flat into the floor. Pulling two straps folds the seatback forward, then the whole unit flips over backward into the recess in the rear of the vehicle.
The system is similar to the rear seat in the Honda Odyssey and like the Odyssey, it also drops backward into a tailgating position. A benefit in the Ford system is that the headrests don’t need to be removed for either operation. Another asset is the deep storage area available when the third row is in use.
With the third row seat stowed and the second row seats removed, Freestar boasts more than 134 cu.-ft. of cargo space. Freestar is available in five trim levels: S, SE, SES, SEL and Limited. Engine choices are a standard 193 hp 3.9L V-6, the same powerplant used in the Mustang and F-150 and an optional 201 hp 4.2L V-6 backed up by a 4F50N four-speed automatic transmission that replaces the old four-pinion final drive gear set with a five-pinion set for smoother shifts and a new torque converter for a more responsive launch.
The base MSRP for Freestar ranges from $24,460 to $33,630 including destination and delivery charges. Ford plans to build 200,000 Freestars and Montereys at its Oakville, Ontario, Canada, assembly plant. Job one was August 25, 2003 and the first vans were delivered to dealerships in early October.