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1996 Ford Windstar, 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan

  • Driver

Faithful readers will recall my dismay after Ford introduced the Windstar minivan. It wasn't the vehicle as presented that got me upset; the Windstar is a pretty nice little van. It was what it could have been. To my mind, what it should have been.

I am of the opinion that, if we are going to employ so many of these small boxes to transport so many people, they'd better be as good as it gets.

I don't propose to debate the relative merits of external styling, interior amenities or space utilization. But, I contend that along with their admirable space and creature comforts, minivans should provide equally admirable vehicle dynamics: a stable ride, adept handling, powerful brakes, and engine power to match that of contemporary sedans.

Plus, I demand that it all comes in a quiet package. It is not easy to combine quiet and performance in a box on wheels.

My quarrel with the Windstar was that it did not take us far enough toward those goals. Indeed, while there was nothing seriously wrong with much of the '95 Windstar's road behavior, I found its handling indifferent, the ride oversoft, and the 3.0 L V6 engine's power marginal.

Not a good place to be with an all-new Chrysler minivan looming over the market's horizon.

No, the latest Chrysler van doesn't take us all the way through the goal posts either. But it is a remarkable vehicle good enough to garner both the '96 Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's van-of-the-year award, plus the overall car-of-the-year prize.

So? So Ford has been busy. The 1996 model is available with traction control, a load-leveling rear suspension, and a new 3.8-litre 200 h.p. V6.

To help chart the impact of those changes, Ford was kind enough to make a '95 and a '96 available for an intensive day of testing. For even more perspective, I arranged with Chrysler for the loan of a 3.8 L Grand Caravan on the same day.

Driving the '95 again underscored my initial impressions. The Windstar is a nicely turned out, well featured minivan, and so quiet!

However, the earlier Windstar's ride is floaty with noticeable bobbing and some fore and aft pitching. Handling is characterized by overwhelming understeer that cannot be offset by any steering or throttle technique. The engine manages to provide adequate motivation for the minivan, but its own motivation is in question: not happy in the job.

I had also forgotten how truly weird the Windstar's rubbery steering feels. Seemingly connected to the wheels by bungee cord, the steering wheel also exhibits a desperate need to return to centre. Ease your grip at any time and the van instantly tries to go straight. In a crosswind you have to fight the wind in one direction and the wheel in the other. Rapid cornering brings on another phenomenon: the steering feel alternately firms up or goes limp in your grasp. Weird.

The numbers support some of these impressions. Noise levels were remarkably low, only 62 decibels at 80 km/h and barely 70 db. at 100. Not too long ago, any car that measured less than 75 at 100 klicks was considered quiet!

Standing start to 100 km/h acceleration times were slow, taking fully 12.25 seconds. Although there is not a lot of oomph in the motor, the '95 Windstar was also impossible to launch. The chassis rocks back on the rear suspension, the front driving wheels are left unladen, and they just sit there and squeal.

Out in the real world of highway passing, the Windstar did acceptably well, taking between 8.5 and 9 seconds to get from 90 to 120 km/h.

Braking pedal feel was soft for my taste, but around town the action was strong and confident. Surprisingly, a panic stop took a huge push on the pedal. More than I like.

The ABS, while quite rackety, gave me a series of straight, composed stops on snow and on wet pavement.

In contrast, the '96 Caravan's athletic chassis is immediately noticeable for its taut, level, but comfortable ride, plus roadholding that inspires enthusiastic driving. I could say that the Windstar is pleasant to drive; the Caravan can be fun.

Understeer is still the cornering mode, but the degree to which the Caravan's front end "pushes" can be influenced by suggestions from the driver's hands and throttle foot. Steering input is a linear, no-fuss endeavor. The wheel feels light, but connected.

The 3.8 L V6 engine is not my favorite in the Chrysler lineup. It is smooth and uncomplaining, and it has the torque for heavy loads, but it seems to spool up slowly. The 3.3 has the sporty feel.

The 3.8's lackadaisical ways are revealed in an 11.5-ish 0-to-100 time and a pull-out-to-pass interval lasting 8.5 seconds almost identical to the 3.0 L Windstar.

In normal conditions, the experience of slowing or stopping the Caravan is very similar to that in the Windstar: light pedal, firm control. Panic stops, however, required far less effort in the Dodge. The action of the Chrysler ABS is more subtle, less noisy than on the Ford, but the effect was about the same.

As measured, the interior sound levels in the Caravan mirrored those of the Windstar's: 63 db. at 80, and 70 db. at 100 km/h. However, the subjective quality of that sound was not as agreeable, somehow harsher, more evident. At speeds below 50 km/h, road thump was very noticeable, emanating from somewhere at the back.

In the Windstar, the thumps are pleasingly muffled and are not localized — evidence of Ford's expertise with NVH (noise, vibration, harshness).

Switching to the '96 Windstar, it took a run of no more than 10 metres to discover the zip in the new engine. Responsive and eager, the optional 3.8 stands in sharp contrast to the 3.0. Gone is the roughness and sense of strain.

To the 0-to-100? Only 10.2 seconds, helped out by an up-rated rear suspension that kept weight on the front tires, and the traction control that limited wheelspin. The 90-to-120 highway test was quick, a mere 7.25 seconds. (In partial disbelief, I repeated that one a number of times.)

The Chrysler minivan drivetrain is often praised for its seamless operation and sporty driveability. Well, I can say the same for the new Ford engine/transmission package — and more. Hey, how can you feel anything but good about a powertrain that, when the throttle is floored at about 100 km/h, it downshifts, holds the gear until almost 5000 r.p.m., and upshifts as the speedo passes 160 km/h?

The added performance does not come with increased noise as a penalty. The cruising speed measurements remained the same, and the more relaxed sound of the engine under acceleration was a distinct improvement. I was concerned that the rearend's airspring loadlevelling gear might transmit more road thump noise. If anything, it's less.

There was also an improvement in handling as a result of the adoption of the air suspension. Longer rubber jounce snubbers restrict the amount of travel, and more aggressive shocks control the action. Body lean over the stern wheels is discernibly reduced, and that translates into a more directionally responsive front end. Understeer remains pronounced, but the driver no longer has that helpless sense of being "just along for the ride".

Ride also benefits from the modifications made necessary by the air suspension. While continuing too-softly-sprung for my taste, the chassis' vertical bobbing is reduced, and pitching motions are all but eliminated.

Unfortunately, Ford has not seen the wisdom of making similar modifications to the standard coilspring rear suspension.

With the traction control option, four-wheel disc brakes replace the standard disc/drum setup. There is no observable difference in normal use, but braking power was evident in emergency tests (still more pedal required than on the Caravan).

Software changes have made the '96 ABS more sensitive, and provide more rapid cycling.

Although traction control was not on my original vehicle dynamics agenda, Ford's adoption of this technology for the Windstar has forced the issue. Traction control is immensely helpful on front-wheel drives, vehicles that require the front wheels to perform the difficult task of driving and steering at the same time.

On a snowy parking lot, I tried every manoeuvre I could think of, and came up loving the '96 Windstar's smooth and sophisticated system. When wheelspin occurs on a slippery surface, the apparatus first lightly applies the brakes, then it retards the engine timing to reduce power. If the driver continues to be an idiot, it will ultimately cut back the fuel flow. Most of this can only be detected by the flashing of a "trac active" indicator light.

What can we conclude from my daylong thrash? Well, it is a great time to be in the market for a minivan. The Chrysler product is still the gold standard, but its position is not unassailable. Ford's Windstar maintains a hold on the NVH laurels, has leapt to the front in the powertrain contest, and brings us truly effective traction control.

The improvements in our '96 Windstar's ride and handling dynamics were garnered with minimal changes, and suggest that there could be more if the manufacturer is willing to put in the effort. As for the gooey steering, Ford ultimately recognized and corrected a similar problem on the Explorer.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on driving experiences in vehicles supplied by the manufacturers.

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