Ford has been on the ropes for the last few years, and seemed to lack the imagination to create innovative enough products to turn things around. Sure, the new F-150 is a thoroughly executed product, but its far from exciting. Its not going to bring new customers to the fold, just slow the rate of defections. To actually lure new customers, Ford needed something innovative, something no one else offered.
For this Ford has been betting on the the new-for-2005 Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle crossover (somewhere between a wagon and an SUV). A few weeks ago I dropped by a dealer to drive the Freestyle, but none was available so I drove the Five Hundred sedan. I found it thoroughly competent, but also thoroughly boring. Not going to do it. The Freestyle is much the same vehicle, just with a wagon rear end and third-row seatand a roughly $3,000 higher price. Doesnt seem like a winning formula, does it? But wanting to give the car the benefit of the doubt, I dropped back by the Ford dealer to drive a Freestyle.
The Ford Freestyle is as conservatively styled as the Five Hundred, but is overall a much more successful design. Where the Five Hundred is round to a fault, just begging anonymity, the Freestyle applies the handsome, authoritative, square-shouldered look of Fords SUVs to a car. Key differences include a more upright, squarer front end; tasteful cladding with fender flares; and beefy roof rails. I especially like how the roof subtly kicks up over the second row.
Like the Five Hundred, the Freestyle succeeds in looking smaller than it is. Its pretty close in size to Chryslers Pacificaor an extended length minivan, for that matterbut youd never guess by looking at it. One reason: its about five inches narrower than those vehicles. But the clean lines also do their part.
Inside the Freestyle is no more successful than the Five Hundred. Like many other Ford vehicles, especially its SUVs, the interior ambiance is functional to a fault. The instrument panel design is much different than the Five Hundreds, I suppose to suggest that its not simply a Five Hundred wagon, but the result is nothing to get excited about. There are too many plain, flat surfaces. The door armrests look and feel particularly pedestrian. Id complain about them in a $10,000 subcompact, much less in a $35,000 wagon. (Yeah, its a wagon to me, much moreso than the more idiosyncratic Pacifica.) I drove a leather-trimmed limited this time around. So at least the plainly styled center armrest benefited from upholstery.
I was no fan of the materials in the Five Hundred. Surprisingly, despite its higher price the Freestyles interior materials are actually of lower quality. No soft-touch plastic atop the instrument panel here. Also, after driving the Freestyle I sat in a Five Hundred Limited to confirm that the materials were in fact different (and my memory wasnt simply playing tricks on me). In doing so I discovered that the leather in the Five Hundred Limited looks and feels richer than that in the Freestyle Limited. I suspect Fords desire to distance the two vehicles by lending the Freestyle a more truckish ambiance might not play out quite as intended.
Ah, workmanship. The hood and right fender on the Freestyle I drove were far out of alignment. I thought we were past this sort of thing
As in the Five Hundred, the driving position is excellent, with lots of glass, unobtrusive pillars, and a nice open view forward. A much different experience than sitting in the high-sided, fortress-like Pacifica. Less width than in the Pacifica and most minivans also contributes to confidence behind the wheel. I generally drive a much smaller car, but instantly felt at home in the drivers seat of the Freestyle.
The Ford Freestyles front seats lack sufficient contour and even in leather dont look or feel luxurious. Here again the Five Hundred Limited does better. Its looser fitting leather not only looks richer (especially in black; the Freestyle I drove had a beige interior) permits the seat to cup your body a bit more. I also suspect a bit more padding is installed beneath the Five Hundreds leather.
The Freestyles second row is a mixed bag. The raised roof permits it to be mounted well off the floor. This both prevents claustrophobiarear seat passengers see out nearly as well as those up frontbut also provides very good thigh support, a rarity these days. But the second-row seats are even flatter than those up front, continuing the proud Ford tradition of making the rear seats in its wagons as flat as a board. (A more contoured seat is used in the Five Hundred.) I suppose this is to enable the seat to fold flat, but Ive been in other wagons where the seats both fold and properly support the human body.
The Freestyle comes standard with second-row buckets, with a second-row console an inexpensive option. The Freestyles Ive seen so far, though, have been fitted with the no-cost option of a three-person split bench. Not so spiffy as the buckets, but more functional. I suspect Ford learned from Chryslers mistake with the Pacifica, where people balked at the impracticality of only being able to carry four people in the first two rows.
No one expects the third row in such a vehicle to be comfortable for adults, but the Freestyles comes closer than I expected. The seat cushion is too low to the floor to provide much thigh support, and is as flat as that in the second row. But there is plenty of room for heads and knees back there (unlike in the Pacifica, Pilot, or any number of midsize SUVs). Another Freestyle advantage: the second row seat easily tips out of the way, so getting into and out of the third row is relatively easy. Fords engineers achieved a packaging miracle here.
Now for the best part. Like those in many minivans, the third row stows in a well. Some of these seats are easier to stow than others. I injured a few fingers stowing the heavy, poorly designed seat in the Nissan Quest, for example. Well, the split third-row seat in the Freestyle is easier to stow than any Ive encounteredand I think thats all of them. A very simple two-step process that requires very little in the way of muscle. With one exception: the third row headrests must be raised to get them out of shoulder blade territory, and both raising them and putting them down takes so much effort that initially the salesman and I thought they were broken.
This one issue notwithstanding, very impressive convertability. To top this off, not only do the second and third rows fold and stow to form a flat floor, but the front passenger seatback folds forward as well. You could carry a lot of stuff in this vehicle, and converting it from a people hauler to a cargo hauler could not be easier.
On the Road
At 4100 pounds, the Ford Freestyle actually weighs considerably less than other three-row SUVs with all-wheel-drive. A Pacifica weighs nearly 600 pounds more. So Fords engineers did an outstanding job keeping the weight down.
But this is still a lot of mass for a 3.0-liter to motivate. (Like the Five Hundred, for 2005 and 2006 the Freestyle makes do with a warmed over 203-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 from the Taurus, Escape, etc.) The solution for now: a continuously variable transmission. A CVT permits the engine to be kept in its powerband continuously.
My experience here was much like in the Five Hundred. Acceleration is at best adequate. Around town performance is thoroughly acceptable, and youd be hard-pressed to tell that a CVT was part of the mix. Attempt to drive the Freestyle in a sporty manner, however, and youll find the powertrain lacking. Dig deep into the throttle and the CVT puts the engine in high RPM mode and holds it there. There is little sensation of thrust, but much sensation of engine noise. Looking at the speedometer, I notice that vehicle speed is climbing faster than it seems to be, but this does little to provide driving thrills. In two years the Freestyle will be fitted with a more powerful 3.5-liter, and will be much better for it.
In its defense, the CVT even under full throttle acceleration doesnt feel terribly unnatural. It doesnt hold revs entirely steady, but permits them to climb gradually, if less quickly than with a conventional geared transmission. This sacrifices some performance for the sake of a more familiar auditory experience. (Were all acclimated to hearing engine speed climb as vehicle speed increases.)
I found the Five Hundreds handling competent but uninspired. For some reason I was much more pleased with the Freestyle in this area. Maybe it was that the salesperson didnt come along this time. Or that Id just test driven the new Honda Odyssey (review coming soon). Or maybe the Freestyles suspension is actually tuned more tautly than the Five Hundreds. Whatever the reason, the handling of the Freestyle felt almost sporty to me.
The steering is significantly quicker than in most such vehicles, and effort gains naturally as the wheel is turned. Though no rival to a good sports car in this area, feedback is also much better than in the great majority of SUVs. Combine this much-better-than-expected steering with moderate lean in turns and the driving position discussed above, and I actually enjoyed driving the Freestar. When not asking too much of the engine it feels almost sporty. I cannot say that about many vehicles with three rows of seats. The Freestyle feels lighter on its feet than the Pacifica (partly because it is) and more nimble and less numb than the Pilot.
The front-wheel-drive Freestyle might handle a bit differently, though the engine really isn't powerful enough to make use of the benefits of all-wheel-drive when powering out of turns. On the other hand, a Freestyle with some serious power under the hood would be interesting. Any chance?
I did drive the Limited this time around, which is fitted with 18-inch Pirelli P6 touring tires in place of slightly higher profile less sporting 17s. That might explain part of the difference.
For one or more of the above reasons (likely including the tires), the Freestyle did not seem to ride as smoothly or quietly as the Five Hundred. Tar strips were heard and felt a bit more, though still well within comfortable limits. On the plus side, the Freestyle lacked the minor float over uneven pavement in turns that I experienced in the Five Hundred. Yep, Im thinking Ford tuned the Five Hundreds suspension to please your older sedan buyer, and the Freestyles to support a quasi-SUV positioning. Me, I prefer the tighter feel of the Freestyle.
Noise levels in the Freestyle are moderate. A bit higher than in the Pilot and Pacifica, for example. The structure also felt a little short of rock solid to me, likely a by-product of keeping the weight down. Or maybe the bits between the headliner and roof just needed to be more securely attached--over rough patches I heard some muffled shifting about up there. Together with the interior ambiance and ride quality, this noise level and hint of body structure flex keeps the Freestyle from feeling like a luxury vehicle even in Limited trim. If luxury is what you want, youll be happier in the considerably cushier Pacifica.
All in all, I enjoyed driving the Freestyle much more than I expected to.
Ford Freestyle Price Comparisons and Pricing
For quick, up-to-date pricing, and especially user-specified price comparisons, check out the website I created: www.truedelta.com
. Why yet another vehicle pricing website? Well, I personally lacked the patience to keep using the others. They were too slow and required too much effort, especially when trying to compare prices. So I taught myself some programming and created a site where there is no need to dig through option packages, prerequisites, and the like one by one -- the TrueDelta
algorithm figures these out for you in one swift pass
The loaded Freestyle I drove listed for $34,600. Yeah, pretty steep, but what about the alternatives? Before rebates, the Freestyle is about $2,700 less expensive than the Pacifica. Similarly, only a $3,000 rebate on the decidedly inferior Buick Rendezvous makes the prices roughly equivalent. Hondas Pilot comes closest, at about $1,300 higher MSRP to MSRP. But then Id expect a larger dealer discount and perhaps a rebate as well on the Ford.
So while I regret that the Freestyle is about $3,000 more than the Five Hundred sedan, compared to other three-row vehicles the price seems fair, even more than fair.
Consider Fords own Freestar minivan. Perhaps the least desirable of large minivans, the Freestar nevertheless is priced four to five thousand dollars higher than the Freestyle before rebates. (Yes, the names are regrettably similar. What was Ford thinking?) Itll take a pretty hefty rebate to make the Freestar seem the better buy. They might as well put it out of its misery.
What about compared to a conventional SUV? Similarly loaded, an Explorer is about $6,500 more expensive.
Yes, the Freestyle has a number of weaknesses. The engine could use more power, and the interior could look and feel less pedestrian. But the rare combination of a spacious, versatile interior with enjoyable handling make me almost forget these faults. For now the Freestyle is a unique vehicle. If I personally had to buy and drive a vehicle with three real rows of seats (i.e. no dinky rear-facing ones) then this would be the one.
A Note on Ford Freestyle Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a Freestyle rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Ford Freestyle reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need reliability data on all cars--not just the Freestyle--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access
to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews
can be found on my profile page
Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Subaru B9 Tribeca
Amount Paid (US$):
Model and Options:
Limited AWD all options