1998 Ford Windstar
In three years, the Windstar has matured into a very nice minivan.
The 1998 model is quick and stable. The ride is still soft enough to satisfy the boulevardiers, but now has the control to accept the demands of a twisty road or an emergency avoidance manoeuvre. The steering is light and precise.
The van shows greater emphasis on the little assembly details smooth edges on the plastic bits, all the individual parts lined up, seams and gaps straight and tight. Plus, a re-engineering of the nose section has made Ford's people mover particularly crashworthy.
Safety concerns figure into many new-car purchases and Ford has scored a major coup for the traffic-timid among us.
The effort that has gone into sophisticated computer-designed crush zones in that reshaped front end has garnered the Windstar a Five Star safety rating from the U.S. government. Tests by independent safety organizations have duplicated the Feds' findings. It's apparent that if a crash is going to happen, the Windstar is a good place to be.
I caught one heckuva lot of flack from the folks at Ford when I savaged the first version of their new baby in Wheels almost three years ago (Wheels, Does New Ford Minivan Match Rival? "No. Windstar refines the genre but falls short of Chrysler target." April 9, 1994).
Although I put it more delicately at the time, in essence I pointed out that the van was gutless, that it rode and handled like a round-bottomed boat, and that the gooey steering was among the strangest I'd ever encountered made worse by the steering wheel's pathological obsession with returning to centre.
And I guess it really stung when I suggested that the build quality was not what it should have been.
(In deference to the enthusiastic gang at the Windstar plant in Oakville, I should mention that I subsequently inspected more than a dozen of the vans and it became obvious that the machines were well screwed together. Variations in the individual parts seemed to be at the root of the problem.)
The unkindest cut of all must have been my assertion that the Windstar had not advanced the minivan concept one millimetre.
Well, I guess some at Ford agreed with me, because everything I carped about has been changed or improved. (Remember George Peppard in the A Team? "I just love it when a plan comes together!")
Wheels' opportunity to evaluate the newest Windstar came in the form of a GL model equipped with a host of options, including such items as a trailer package, traction control, alloy wheels and quad bucket seats for a total cost of $30,950 on a base price of $23,895.
According to Ford spokesman Chris Banks, fully 65 per cent of all Windstars sold will be similar to our tester. That surprises me because I assumed a less expensive combination might be the van of choice.
But it's good news for the owners. This is, as I said, a very nice van.
The 200 h.p. 3.8 litre V6 is a definite plus.
Historically, some minivans have been barely adequate when running light, and hopelessly slow with a load of family and stuff on board. The current Chrysler 3.3 and 3.8 litre V6s are fine, as is the 180 h.p. 3.4 litre V6 employed by GM's Venture/Trans Sport.
But the Windstar's engine and transmission combo stands head and shoulders above the rest. It spins up freely and it's smooth and impressively strong everywhere on the power band.
The transmission demonstrates what auto writers mean when we use the term "seamless" to describe the quality of the shifts. Nasty traffic, highway passing, long hills, or heavy loads are taken in easy stride. This is the van to choose if you plan on towing a boat or camper trailer.
It's going to take a call to an engineer in Dearborn to get a handle on the improvements in the Windstar's handling. The changes, although most marked on the '98 model, have come incrementally, noticeable on each subsequent vehicle I've driven.
The 1998 version brings a truly pleasant, and safe, combination of adequate shock absorber damping and roll control.
My preference is always for a taut, more sharply responsive suspension. That's available on LX and Limited models with the simple addition of automatic load levelling to the option list.
The leveller's air shocks really crisp things up, plus the system works to keep the front wheels firmly on the ground when carrying a load or towing a trailer. I strongly recommend it.
(The levelling hardware lists at $382. A trailer towing package is an additional $273 if you've chosen the rear seat a/c; $309 without.)
But none of this would be worth much without the accurate new steering. Ford's Windstar product managers were full of confidence when they described the reborn system to me last fall. I was sceptical, but they can be justly proud of the outcome.
After the spring we've had, it's great to be able to report that we had no chance to try out the traction control this time. No matter, it is a well set up, effective adjunct to winter motoring that should also come in handy on muddy roads or on a slippery boat launch ramp. (For a full exploration of minivan traction control see Wheels, March 8, 1997.)
When it comes to catching flack, Ford has received its share for not adopting the driver's-side sliding door.
The firm's interim measure, a wider driver's door and a tip-and-slide driver's seat, is really quite acceptable.
The seat operates easily, moving forward and out of the way to allow access to the rear seat area. Ingenious hinging points for the large door provide a wide opening without it swinging out into traffic or into the side of the car parked beside. Quite brilliant, actually.
After all this gushy praise I can't resist taking a few parting shots at the little van.
It still won't accept a 4×8 sheet of building material. Old news, but I'm still boggled that the design was completed with this oversight. Particularly when the floor pan size would allow it.
I'm not at all enamored of the new headlamps. The multi-faceted reflectors blast out plenty of light but the illumination pattern is fragmented and distracting.
The rear bench is still too heavy. A problem shared by all the minis, it needs to be solved in order to provide a truly convenient and flexible load space.
Removing the seat should not be a two-person task. And, I don't like most of the colors the Windstar comes in. A matter of taste, yes, but I find many of them unpalatably bland.
Does the 1998 Windstar advance the minivan concept a whit or more? Not really, that will probably come with the industry's next generation of the compact people movers, sometime early in the 21st century.
But in the current scene, the latest Windstar is definitely state-of-the-art.