This New Minivan Really Passes Muster

Until now, alternatives to Chrysler's minivans fell into two camps: First was a group of rivals on a par with Chrysler's models but available only at high prices and in limited supply. These included the Mercury Villager, Nissan Quest, Mazda MPV, and the Toyota Previa. Second were the readily available, high-volume minivans that were no match for Chrysler: Ford's Aerostar was too trucklike, while General Motors' slope-nosed minivans never caught on,

despite engine and transmission improvements and even a modest nose job this year. But now, Ford will be making some 300,000 Windstar minivans a year, with features comparable to those of Chrysler vehicles--or slightly ahead.

The all-new front-wheel-drive Windstar (which does not come in a Mercury version) is slightly longer and wider than Chrysler's stretched minivans--the Dodge Grand Caravan and Plymouth Grand Voyager. Yet it handles better. In turns, both makers' minivans lean more than a car would, but the Windstar behaves more smoothly. The Windstar's 3.8-liter V-6 engine is also a bit less harsh, though it offers less horsepower: 155 vs. Chrysler's 162. Windstar also has wider seats and a shade more hauling capacity.

For quick loading, the two rear seat backs fold down and the one farthest back slides forward or back seven inches to give you that little extra space you sometimes need. If you want to move serious freight, however, be warned: Ford claims the two rear seats are "easily removable." Yeah, right.

The instrument panel is well laid out and puts controls within easy reach of the driver. There's an extra set of radio controls for passengers in the second row. (In case you can't stand your kids' taste in gangsta rap, the front controls override those in back.) A nifty option is an automatic door-lock switch by the rear door. So when you're unloading groceries and your arms are full, you no longer have to walk to the driver's door to lock up. Dual air bags, antilock brakes, and adjustable shoulder anchors for seat belts are standard.

Skip the optional center console. Wide enough to stow a laptop computer, it blocks your path from the front to rear seats. The Windstar's base list price is $19,455, but the most popular version and its options sells for $27,350. That's slightly higher than competing Chrysler models, but the Windstar needn't apologize for its price tag. There's nothing "coulda been" about it: This minivan is a contender.

Jim Treece

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