Ford Windstar Minivan

(2003 ‘SEL Advance Trac’ model)

A Star By Any Name

Reviewed by Eddie Wren, September 2003

People over 50 buy a surprising proportion of upscale minivans – these vehicles are clearly not just for the parents of young families. Spaciousness and a high seating position, without needing to climb up into SUVs, are just two of the reasons. Minivans are also significantly less likely to roll over than SUVs, too, and this is a major safety factor in their favor.

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The Ford Windstar is undoubtedly one of the leaders among today’s crop of vans, and sports many features that make it a highly desirable, but equally important is the fact that it is a pleasure to drive. It even handled very acceptably when we were obliged to drive for two hours through some heavy side-winds – the 50mph gusts left over, inland, from Hurricane Isabel.

Regular readers of Drive and Stay Alive’s vehicle reviews will know, however, that we only feature vehicles in our web pages if those vehicles perform better than average in terms of safety, in the event of a crash, and on this basis, the Windstar is certainly no slouch.

In February 2003, in the NHTSA booklet ‘Buying a Safer Car, 2003’, the Windstar (when fitted with side airbags) came top in crash test ratings, the only van to get 24 stars out of a possible 25. On the NHTSA website other vans can now match this total, though none exceed it, and at present on the IIHS crashworthiness website (which is based on a slightly different reporting system) the Windstar holds fourth place, which is still no mean feat considering the continual increase of standards as newer and newer models from other makers hit the market. How the replacement Ford Freestar model will fare remains to be seen but at a guess it may well recoup the top spot, overall.

In terms of safety and convenience, the Windstar has several useful features (check individual model specifications to confirm):

  • At the push of a button, the pedals can be brought closer to the driver, allowing people of shorter build to remain a safe distance away from the steering wheel and its airbag
  • Side airbags were also fitted to the model we tested (a $390.00 option) and these dramatically enhance the safety of front seat occupants
  • Advance Trac™ was fitted to the vehicle we tested and in terms of stability this has advantages over standard traction control
  • The rear indicators/flashers are yellow (amber) rather than red — a much more important safety feature than many people realize
  • Arrow-shaped ‘repeater’ indicators were built into the external ‘side mirrors’, and these also operated, on the relevant side, when the sliding door was open, to give other drivers a warning that passengers might be getting out of the vehicle
  • If you leave your turn signals on, by accident (after a lane-change on the highway, for example), a warning chime activates after half a mile
  • A backing-up (reversing) alarm beeps when the car gets too close to an object at the rear and turns to a steady warning note when you get closer than about fifteen inches
  • A re-settable tire pressure warning system was fitted
  • Bag hangers and a cargo net in the back made it easy to stow the weekly shopping securely
  • Separate air conditioning and temperature controls were fitted for the rear seats
  • A very useful ‘conversation mirror’ was fitted to allow drivers to see all the rear-seat passengers without looking around — ideal for parents when the kids are being noisy
  • Apart from the now commonplace readout for the outside temperature, the car also had a display to show the direction of travel. It came in useful more than once in the twisty side roads of eastern Massachusetts

On the other side of the equation there were just a few points against the car:

  • Once the power sliding doors are moving, they will not stop if they contacted an object (such as a person). The switches beside those doors can, however, be deactivated by the driver and child locks are also fitted to prevent manual opening from the inside
  • Except in dangerous neighborhoods, it is safest to travel with front doors unlocked and rear doors locked but the Windstar doesn’t easily permit this. It locks all the doors, automatically, as soon as a gear is selected, after which one can have either all the doors locked or all the doors unlocked (but see ‘child locks’, above)
  • The chiming signal to warn that the key had been left in the ignition could have been designed to stop after a few seconds but it doesn’t (other ‘alerts’ in the car do stop)
  • As with most cars that have either audio switches or (as in this case) cruise control switches on the spokes of the steering wheel, the horn button was in the center of the wheel — the very place it shouldn’t be in an emergency, when both hands need to remain on the wheel rim

    The Kids’ Comments

    Overall, all the kids really liked traveling in the Windstar. Maybe the seats were a little too firm, they thought, and one wanted arm rests in the back row of seats as well as in the middle row (though that wouldn’t be practical). Being typically impatient, they also wanted the power sliding doors to work faster, too, but that definitely wouldn’t be practical, for safety reasons. Anyway, the Windstar emerged well from this ultimate evaluation; the kids approved.

Entertainment

The car tested not only had an AM/FM, six-disc CD stereo, but also had a ‘family entertainment center’ so that the kids can watch videos on an overhead screen. The system uses headphones and is a $995.00 option but at those times when we had five kids in the back it certainly kept them entertained (for which read “nice and quiet”!).

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The Ford Windstar is available in four different trim levels: LX, SE, SEL (as tested), and ‘Limited’.

The 3.8 liter (232 cubic inch) V6 engine is standard to all four models and meant that acceleration was perfectly acceptable even when the car/van/minivan/wagon/MPV (call it what you will!) was carrying seven people. During the two weeks we had the vehicle, it averaged almost exactly 20 miles to the gallon, and this ties in completely with Ford’s estimates of 17mpg for city use and 23mpg on highways.

So, would I have a Windstar, long-term? Yes, I can happily say that I would. I have no serious misgivings about the Windstar whatsoever, and it has a lot going for it. I’m just looking forward to trying the newer ‘Freestar’ when it becomes available.

Photographs (from top):
1. The Windstar on Cape Cod. Copyright © 2003, Eddie Wren and ‘Drive And Stay Alive’.
2. Interior of the Windstar ‘Limited’ model. Copyright © 2003, Ford
3. AM/FM stereo plus Six-CD player. Copyright © 2003, Ford
4. Ford Windstar. Copyright © 2003, Ford