Editorial: Lackluster 2006 Ford Freestar Wheelchair Vans

editorial-2006FordFreestarWheelchair-van

This is what happens when a major automaker tries to salvage a critically wounded model with a name change. In 2004, Ford officially gave up on its Windstar handicap minivan after a few rough years of reliability problems. They re-branded the Windstar as the Freestar in 2004 and have slowly tried to change the vehicle with a series of underwhelming changes. The 2006 addition isn’t going to change the course for Ford. They’re losing in the minivan market and will probably continue to do so until they surrender completely.

Looking at the Freestar

Looking at the Freestar is a bit like walking onto a wheelchair van dealer’s lot five or ten years ago. The Freestar handicap seems stuck firmly in the past. While the competition of Honda and Toyota create more attractive and car-like minivans, Ford is holding fast to the boxy, utility wagon style that was a hallmark of earlier minivans.

Put simply, the Freestar lacks style.

That problem extends into the vehicle, as well. The vanilla cabin is cobbled together from inferior grade materials and is anything but impressive. This year, Ford is trying to make the Freestar a little more attractive by adding chrome accents and other little shiny plastic parts to the interior. The strategy isn’t working.

Driving the Freestar

Anyone who’s experienced a ride in a working pick-up truck will understand what it’s like to drive a Freestar. It just sort of bounces along, offering inferior levels of control and comfort.

To make matters worse, the heavy Freestar is underpowered. Both the 193-horsepower and 201-horsepower engines lack the muscle necessary to put the minivan through its paces.

Modifying the Freestar For Wheelchair Access

One might be willing to overlook the design deficiencies of the Freestar and its potential as a quality wheelchair van if the mechanics and performance weren’t so far behind the curve.

After all, the Freestar has a spacious interior and conversion manufacturers like VMI has repeatedly demonstrated that it can be transformed into a highly accessible wheelchair van.

Side-entry Freestars with lowered floors, utilizing powered wheelchair ramps, powered sliding doors and auto kneel systems, would be a credible choice for those in need of an accessibility vehicle if the rest of the minivan was good enough to justify a purchase.

Unfortunately, the minivan itself just isn’t’ good enough to justify that kind of investment.

Options for the Freestar Handicap Van

To its credit, Ford does a good job of making a wide variety of options available to Freestar buyers. Unlike many other manufacturers, it allows owners of less expensive versions of the vehicle to access popular options, instead of requiring ownership of a more expensive model to qualify.

Ford has also been generous with the entry-level SE. It has a full assortment of power accessories and other features you might not expect to find on a stock minivan. The SE can be built up with any one of a few special upgrade packages, as well.

The LES offers improvements to some of the SE equipment and adds a rear climate control system. The high-end Limited Freestar adds a series of comfortable accoutrements and quality extras including a supple leather interior and larger chrome wheels.

Safety and the Freestar

Here’s another area where Ford deserves a great deal of credit. Even when the Windstar handicap van was at its worse, it remained one of the safest vehicles on the road. The 2006 Windstar follows that same path. It’s a very secure car.

Ford’s impressive airbag system, antilock breaks and stability control system have combined to produce a series of perfect scores for both government and industry crash testing. The Freestar has been doing that for years, consistently demonstrating great safety ratings.

The Bottom Line

It’s hard to imagine why one would choose a Ford Freestar over the many superior options in the handicap minivan class. The Freestar isn’t the cheapest wheelchair minivan. It’s not the fastest. It’s not the most reliable. In fact, it doesn’t rate anywhere close to the top of the list in any key department with the exception of safety.

When one looks at the 2006 Freestar handicap van, he or she begins to wonder how serious Ford is about maintaining a piece of the minivan sales pie. Other manufacturers continue to rejuvenate and revamp their vehicles in hopes of capturing more market share. Meanwhile, Ford turns out a near duplicate of an already poorly received minivan year after year.

If this isn’t the last year of the Freestar, it may be close. There’s simply no evidence to suggest that Ford is really interested in taking the Freestar to the top. On the off chance Ford isn’t considering the idea of killing off the Freestar Line, it should. Either that, or they need to get serious and up-to-date from 2007. Otherwise, the gulf between the Freestar and the rest of the world’s minivans may simply grow too big to ever cross.

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