Ford's crossover isn't bad—so why isn't it selling better?
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Up Front Ford is in the wringer. Everyone knows that. Sales stink. Pension and labor costs are sandbagging them. Customers and dealers are fed up. Even Bill Ford finally had the sense to hand over the reins to someone else before things got even worse.
But here's what I don't get. Yes, Ford (F) has some problems, and, yes, Ford may not make the most sophisticated or most beautiful cars in the world. But when I drove the Ford Freestyle crossover the other week, I found myself thinking, "This isn't so bad. What's everyone complaining about?"
Introduced in 2005, the Freestyle, has a roomy interior with three rows of seats, pretty good gas mileage, decent looks, and an affordable price. It also shares design cues with Ford's pickup fleet, so it looks more rugged than some other crossovers. What's more, it's being built at Ford's huge, completely modernized Chicago plant. It stacks up well against the competition in almost every category, so why are sales down more than 13% from last year?
If I could hazard a guess, it's because the Freestyle is a good but not a great car. And I don't mean BMW or Ferrari great. I mean great in the sense that a car is the best vehicle in its class and price point. The Toyota Camry is by no means a "great" car like a BMW—but it's the world's best-selling car because it combines exceptional quality and reliability at an attractive price.
Ford knows how to do this. Its F-150 is a great truck and, for that reason, has been America's best-selling pickup, and Ford's premier moneymaker, for the past 30 years. So why can't Ford do it with its other cars and trucks?
I don't mean to be overly harsh on the Freestyle because, really, there's much to recommend it. The criticism is aimed more at Ford's management for not doing enough to make it better—because it comes so close.
To begin with, the Freestyle is actually one of the few good new ideas from Ford in a long time. For the most part, Ford has been content to rest—precariously, as it turned out—on its laurels, relying on workhorse brands such as the aforementioned F-150, the Explorer SUV, the Mustang, and the Taurus to do all the heavy lifting.
But while these nameplates all performed well in the past and some—like the Mustang—continue to enjoy healthy sales (the F-Series is down almost 13% for the year), there has been a dearth of new models and designs coming out of Dearborn, Mich. Moreover, not only did Ford continue to go back to the well more than it should have done, it also ignored fuel economy at its peril. So when the price of fuel rocketed earlier this year, the company had very few models in the pipeline to offer customers who were getting tired of being burned at the pump.
That's why the idea of the Freestyle makes so much sense. It's a bona fide original vehicle that offers the capacity, but not the bulk, of an SUV and, unlike some other new Ford vehicles, doesn't feel like a cheap rehash of something else.
Better yet, it's the right car at the right time. Crossovers have become increasingly popular with fuel-sensitive drivers who nevertheless aren't quite willing to give up on SUVs. (There are even rumors that Ford may cease minivan production. I think this is a bad idea except for the fact that Ford's minivan, the Freestar, is a real dog. Other companies, such as Honda (HMC) and Toyota (TM), have put serious effort into building minivans and have been rewarded at the dealerships as a result.)
Behind the Wheel One of the drawbacks to crossovers in general, and not just the Freestyle, is that, despite their resemblance to SUVs, they actually have very little off-roading or towing chops. They aren't physically smaller, but they are lower to the ground. Because crossovers are built on car platforms, they have better handling but not ground clearance. (The Freestyle is built on Ford's steel D3 platform, which it shares with the Ford Five Hundred sedan.) This is fine for drivers who are just looking for a practical people-mover. But if you live in a part of the country with lots of snowfall, you may want to look elsewhere, even if the Freestyle does come with an optional all-wheel drive package.
The other drawback to the Freestyle is that it comes with only one engine choice, a relatively tame 3-liter V6 that kicks out only 203 horsepower and 200 ft.-lbs. of torque. While acceleration is decent, it feels sluggish on the road.
The Freestyle is available only in automatic, but it does come in either front-wheel- or all-wheel-drive. Both use Volvo's continuously variable transmission (CVT)—Volvo is owned by Ford—which is not limited to four- or six-speeds but instead uses computers to automatically shift gears. This can take some getting used to, because there is no noticeable upshift or downshift while driving.
What's best about the car is the fact that it has clearly been designed with families in mind. The interior is intelligently laid out to provide plenty of storage room—granted, when the third-row seats are in use, the cargo capacity shrinks dramatically—and head- and legroom.
The third row, however, is actually fairly roomy and is available as a full bench or a 50-50 split standard on the Limited version and as an option on the SEL.
One of the things Ford does best is putting together a dashboard that's simple and easy to use. Buttons are big and easily reachable. All the controls are clearly and intelligently marked. There are no hieroglyphs or mystery initials that leave drivers scratching their heads. The radio controls work beautifully, the optional satellite navigation—which adds a little under $2,000 to the sticker—is clear and straightforward. Even the rear-seat DVD entertainment system—an additional $1,000—which, on some cars, practically requires a degree from Cal Tech to figure out, is so simple even a child can use it (as my children did).
Buy It or Bag It? Because the Freestyle is still so new, it hasn't yet been rated in terms of reliability by any of the major groups, such as Consumer Reports or J.D. Power & Associates—which, like BusinessWeek.com is a division of McGraw-Hill (MHP). However, since it was introduced, there have been no recalls issued for the 2005 or 2006 models, which is a good sign.
Even better, it has been rated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and scored well on both front- and rear-impact tests. While no tests have been done on side impact, one bit of good news is that for the 2007 model, Ford has upgraded the side-impact bags and curtains from optional to standard features.
The main selling point of the Freestyle, in our book at any rate, is its versatility. Thanks to its three rows of seats, it can accommodate up to seven passengers in relative comfort, or you can fold the seats down and jam it full with cargo. That's a good thing, and parents across the country will appreciate this intelligent use of space.
In terms of fuel economy, as mentioned above, the Freestyle also scores pretty well. As is always the case, front-wheel drive outperforms the more expensive all-wheel drive (just as manual transmission invariably offers better gas mileage than automatic transmission), with 20 mpg city and 27 highway and 19 city and 24 highway, respectively. That places it behind small SUVs like the Subaru Outback, Toyota RAV4, and even the Ford Escape, but none of these offer the same seating capacity.
The base front-wheel-drive SEL model starts at $26,270, making it very competitive with models such as the Toyota Highlander, Chrysler Pacifica, Mitsubishi Endeavor, and Honda Pilot. The SEL AWD starts at $28,120, and the top-of-the-line Limited AWD weighs in at $31,405—fully loaded with DVD system, satellite nav, and other goodies, the total is more than $37,000.
That's pretty expensive for a family car—especially a Ford. Sure, the Infiniti FX, Cadillac SRX, and Lexus RX 350 all cost a lot more, but these are, after all, luxury brands, with the fit, finish, and performance to match. Ford is an everyman's brand, and it's possible that one of the reasons why sales have been so sluggish is because the price seems so high. People might be willing to shell out that kind of cash for a Lexus, but not a Ford.
The question is, what do you need a car for? This is an increasingly competitive segment of the auto market, made even more so by the rising cost of gas and the disfavor in which big SUVs now find themselves. If you're more concerned about style and performance, you might want to look somewhere else. Because, like we said at the beginning of this review, it comes so close. But if you need a practical, versatile family car that can haul both kids and stuff in safety and comfort, then check out a Freestyle.
To see more of the Ford Freestyle, click here.