Salvation is at Hand
By Cocoa Efficient
Thousands of Americans are trapped between a rock and hard place. The rock is the raising price of gas and the hard place is the need for a vehicle large enough to haul copious quantities of kids and cargo (or costume and wigs, should that be your priority.) The solution to this quandary is actually out there, sweet pea, sitting on dealer lots just waiting to be discovered. Take it from Miss Effi, though you may not know the name, the Ford Freestyle is the answer to your growing family’s automotive prayers.
The Freestyle is more than just the wagon equivalent of the new Five Hundred sedan. Taller than a traditional station wagon but not as ubiquitous as a minivan, the Freestyle strikes directly at the heart of the “crossover’ market. I said crossovers darling, not crossdresser. There is a slight difference. Crossdressers look, with any luck, like women but are built from a male chassis. Crossovers look like SUVs but are built from a car chassis. In the case of the Freestyle, the chassis is derived from one of the safest platforms available, the Volvo S60. While the Freestyle cannot venture off road or tow as much weight as the butch and brutish Ford Explorer, it is less prone to top heaviness and delivers exceptionally competent ride and handling characteristics. Picture it this way: the SUV is like Dolly Parton in heels after five martinis and the crossover is Janeane Garofalo in flats after a root beer float. On which would you rather piggyback?
The Freestyle is not alone in this field, competing against such worthy opponents as the Chrysler Pacifica, Subaru Tribeca and Toyota Highlander. But the Ford configuration seems to have nailed an unbeatable combination of interior volume, price and fuel economy. The Freestyle offers the same three-row seating configuration as the Pacifica and Highlander, but provides more cargo room behind the third-row seat. Customers who choose the SEL or Limited trims can opt for either a second-row bench or adjustable bucket seats that move fore and aft. When not in use, the Freestyle’s second and third-row seats fold flush to create a flat cargo hold.
From the outside, the Freestyle strikes a rather attractive pose. It’s not as bombastic or beastly as some SUVs, yet nowhere near as dowdy as the average minivan. Ford’s two-tone exterior paint and body cladding treatment is tasteful without going overboard, with the lower cladding acting to protect from errant shopping carts, rude door dingers and the occasional stiletto thrown from the moving vehicle of an unworthy rival. Inside, you’ll find a clean interior, with high quality plastics and easy to operate switchgear. Nothing revolutionary mind you, but also nothing that will soon grow old. Those with little ones will appreciate the Freestyle’s abundant safety features, including optional front side-impact airbags and a head-curtain side airbag covering all three rows.
On the road, the Freestyle is much more enjoyable to drive than a big SUV. The steering is firm and communicative with just the right amount of power assist. You won’t need bulging biceps to parallel park this car. Take the Freestyle into a tight turn and you’ll find body roll and lean come on gradually. Rapid inputs to the steering wheel return a predictable emergency maneuver pattern that leaves the driver with a sense of confidence and control. The tall profile tires may scream as loudly as under-aged twinks being ejected from the local watering hole, but they hold their ground, especially when aided by the optional all-wheel drive. The Freestyle’s suspension soaks up bumps and distortions like croutons in soup, returning a comfortable ride that never feels floaty or light. Cocoa doesn’t suffer loud noises very well, especially the morning after a night on the town, so I was thrilled to discover the serene quite of the Freestyle’s interior, even at highway speeds.
Power for the Freestyle comes from a single source: a 3.0-liter Duratec V6. With a modest 203 horsepower on tap, the Freestyle is not the most powerful vehicle in its class. It does, however, achieve respectable fuel economy (20 mpg city/27 mpg highway) and its revolutionary CVT transmission makes the most of the engine’s low-end torque. Listen up sadists, you’ll like this description. The CVT uses a set of pulleys and a tight belt to hold the engine’s rpm at its maximum output. It takes some getting used to the system as the CVT does not shift up as the vehicle gains speed. As a result, the tachometer just hovers around 5800 rpm until the car reaches the desired speed. It’s a pretty efficient way to transfer power and our un-scientific (Longine Dolce Vita in hand) test results yielded a 0 to 60 time of just under nine seconds. The upside to the CVT is the smooth acceleration and improved fuel economy; the downside is its unproven long-term reliability record. You may want to opt for an extended warranty, just to be safe.
The Freestyle is offered in three trims: SE, SEL and Limited. Prices for the SE start at $25,805 for the front-drive version and $27,655 for the all-wheel drive model. The standard equipment list is generous and includes air conditioning, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, power windows, power door locks, tilt wheel, AM/FM stereo with CD and aluminum wheels. The SEL carries an asking price of $27,205 and a fully loaded Limited with AWD, navigation, Safety Canopy side curtain airbag, rear A/C, power moonroof, rear-seat DVD entertainment system and rear parking sensor tops out at $37,150.
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