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A Late but Solid Market Contender

2005 Ford Freestyle

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page G01

In the new nomenclature of the automotive industry, a "wagon" is a vehicle that bridges the gap between a sedan and a sport-utility vehicle.

That means a "wagon" can be a traditional station wagon, a minivan (long wagon) or a crossover vehicle (essentially a wagon that looks like an SUV).

2005 Ford Freestyle

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: The Freestyle is equipped with a continuously variable automatic transmission, which uses two variable-size pulleys to draw power from the engine and transmit it to the drive wheels. The idea is to increase engine efficiency and fuel savings by eliminating power losses common to transmissions with traditional fixed gear ratios. It works, but it occasionally feels a bit rubbery.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Very good in all three categories.

Head-turning quotient: No big whoop for the exterior; but the interior gets high-fives for excellent ergonomics, quality materials and outstanding comfort.

Body style/layout: The Freestyle is a front-engine, tall wagon with four side doors and a rear hatch. It is available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Trim levels include base SE, mid-line SEL and top-line Limited.

Engine/transmission: The Freestyle comes with a 3-liter, 24-valve V-6 engine that develops 203 horsepower at 5,750 revolutions per minute and 207 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm. The engine is linked to a continuously variable automatic transmission.

Cargo and fuel capacities: The Freestyle has standard seating for six people and optional seating for seven. Excellent legroom and headroom for adults in the center seats. Cargo capacity with rear seats up is 15.8 cubic feet; it's 85.2 cubic feet with those seats folded. Fuel capacity is 19 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline. The Freestyle can be equipped to tow up to 2,000 pounds.

Mileage: I averaged 21 miles per gallon in city-highway driving.

Safety: Anti-lock brakes are standard. Head and side bags are optional. Buy them and forget about the dross, such as the power moon roof.

Price: Base price on the tested all-wheel-drive Freestyle SEL is $28,045. Dealer invoice on base model is $25,660. Price as tested, including $4,125 in options and a $650 destination charge, is $32,820. Dealer's invoice price with options and destination charge is $29,984. Pricing sources include Ford Motor Co. and Edmunds.com.

Purse-strings note: Beware of options. Otherwise, it's a buy.

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The term has been stretched to fit the product.

Consider the 2005 Ford Freestyle. It looks like a compact SUV. But it employs the same underpinnings used by the Volvo S60, Volvo S80, Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans. It also owes much of its being to Volvo's V70 and XC70 wagons, as well as to the Volvo XC90 SUV.

As I've said previously, much of this component and platform sharing -- a consolidation of parts, if you will -- comes from ongoing corporate consolidations in the car industry. Ford Motor Co. owns Sweden's Volvo automaking operation, which means Ford now uses Volvo to come up with some of its better ideas.

The new Ford Freestyle may be one of them. The caveat is needed because the Freestyle, like others of its genre, is a niche-chaser. That means it is aimed at a specific audience -- families who need seating for up to seven people, who want something other than a traditional station wagon or minivan but who don't want the fuel costs or the usually unused off-road prowess of a genuine SUV.

The trouble with chasing niches is that niches change, often quickly. The Freestyle was conceived several years ago in the late evening of the U.S. auto industry's realization that not everybody buying an SUV really wanted one. Many of those buyers actually were looking for something else -- a car/station wagon with some SUV attributes.

Japan's Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., maker of Subaru cars and wagons, knew that all along, which is why Subaru never went whole-hog into the SUV business. Instead, it rolled out all-wheel-drive crossover models such as the Subaru Forester and Outback.

Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. added crossover models such as the Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. DaimlerChrysler brought forth the Chrysler Pacifica, and General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac Division rolled out the Cadillac SRX.

Ford gave birth to its compact Escape but chose to sell it as a genuine, rock-stomping, off-road SUV. That message did not play well with the people who really would have preferred a wagon. Now Ford comes a tad late with the Freestyle, a crossover vehicle designed to bring out the wagon lover in all of us.

It is a good piece of work -- solid, well crafted and gifted with a remarkably comfortable interior. Exterior styling hews to Ford's odd affection for homely bodies. But what the heck; we spend most of our time inside vehicles, not outside them.

A big selling point is that you can put up to seven people inside the Freestyle and still have space in the rear of the vehicle, thanks to a clever storage well, to haul along enough groceries to feed them.

The Freestyle uses the same 203-horsepower, 3-liter V-6 found in the Ford Five Hundred sedan (reviewed in On Wheels Oct. 17). Some automotive media critics have labeled that engine a wimp, as they did the Five Hundred. I disagree. You can get a ticket in the Freestyle just as quickly as you can get one speeding in anything else.

There are three versions of the Freestyle -- the base SE, more upscale SEL and the top-of-the-line Limited. They are available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive will save you more money in the new-car showroom and at the gas pump.

I sampled the all-wheel-drive version of the Freestyle SEL and found it much to my liking. It accelerated and handled well. At this writing, it is offered without stability control and has received some demerits for that. But it remained perfectly stable on good and bad roads. It also performed commendably in several rainstorms, never once losing its footing or swaying dangerously on slippery roads.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company