Ford was instrumental in the market-wide shift from family wagons, such as its own Taurus, to sport/utility vehicles, lead by the Explorer. Launched as a 1991 model, the Explorer came to define the midsize SUV and become a perennial best seller. There has been another shift in recent years: the emergence of "crossover" vehicles, which provide sport/ute ride height and versatility while riding on car-based platforms to minimize the dynamic and fuel-efficiency compromises. Honda and Toyota fueled the new segment's inertia with the CR-V and RAV4, later adding the midsize Pilot and Highlander.
Although the domestic manufacturers were slow to embrace this new vehicle type, having a crossover is now essential to any automaker's product portfolio. As Ford recognized the changing market and saw Explorer sales becoming vulnerable to fuel-economy concerns, its engineers tapped the corporate resource pool to spawn a midsize crossover SUV, the Freestyle, from the solid Volvo midsize-car platform, as well as a large sedan, the Five Hundred.
The Freestyle and the Explorer are a good example of the contrast between the two segments. Both are mid-size models capable of seating up to seven passengers in three rows of seats. But the Freestyle does it in a lighter package that aids fuel economy, with a lower ride height for easier ingress/egress and more nimble handling, and a quieter, more passenger-focused cabin. The Explorer provides more powerful engines, greater towing capacity, and better off-road ability. The Freestyle is offered in three trim levels: SE, SEL, and Limited.
The Freestyle is definitely more wagonlike than the typical SUV, with a low and long body. The design is simple, with the body hunkered down on large wheels presented within arched fenders. The Freestyle avoids genre clichs, such as being festooned with acres of plastic, lower body cladding, push bars, or running boards. Upscale models can be painted with a contrasting color along the lower body, like most Ford SUVs, but still, the overall styling is clean--almost to the point of appliance-like plainness. A subtle step-up in the roofline, largely camouflaged by the standard roof rack, helps provide head clearance for riders in the standard third-row seat.
The Freestyle is a real feat of packaging: It manages to fit a very comfortable space for as many as seven people into a modest-sized vehicle. Like its sedan sibling, the Freestyle employs a raised seating position, which makes for command-position, upright perches and better outward visibility. The driver doesn't sit as high as with many truck-based SUVs, but those taller vehicles usually require passengers to climb up to get aboard, often using running boards to help make the step up. Ingress and egress are very easy in the Freestyle--a boon for older folks, children, or parents lifting babies into and out of child safety seats. The front bucket seats are supportive and comfortable. Shorter drivers should take a test fit; if they're uncomfortably close to the steering wheel (and its airbag), they should consider ordering the optional power-adjustable pedals (available on all trims for 2006), which move closer to the driver to allow him or her to move the seat farther away from the steering wheel. Because the Freestyle is not as tall as most truck-based SUVs, drivers can more easily see around the immediate perimeter of the vehicle. Nonetheless, the Freestyle offers a reverse-parking aide, which beeps as you get close to objects.
The Freestyle offers buyers a choice of seating configurations for the second row. A split-bench provides three-across seating, although three American-scale adults might be snug. Or choose two buckets, or "captain's chairs," with a console in the center. When folding down the seats to make a large cargo area, the top lid of that console must be opened and flopped over so that it's flush with the cargo floor. Access to the standard third-row seat is a little awkward (as is typical), but there's sufficient room back there for adults or--more likely--full-size teens. Behind the third seat is a better-than-average 22.5 cubic feet of cargo space. When the third seat isn't needed, it tumbles into the floor. With all seats folded, the Freestyle can hold 85.2 cubic feet of cargo--about as much as an Explorer can. For carrying extra-long items, the front passenger's seatback also can be folded forward to lay flat. The rear hatch doesn't have a flip-up window for loading small items, nor is the hatch power operated. But the Freestyle's lower cargo floor makes it easier to load heavy items than in many of its truck-based competitors.
Portions of the Freestyle's underbody structure are shared with the Volvo S80, giving the Ford a solid pedigree for both refinement and safety. Side and curtain airbags are optional. The curtain airbags, which cover all three rows of seats, are designed to deploy not only in a side impact, but also in a rollover accident. Anti-lock brakes and traction control are standard on all models. Stability control is not available. The Freestyle has earned coveted five-star ratings in government crash tests for both front and side performance, and it claims four-star rollover ratings for both 2WD and 4WD iterations.
The Freestyle is offered with either front- or four-wheel drive. Designed for slippery conditions, not for extreme off-road use, the full-time 4WD system is always on duty and requires no input from the driver. There is no low range. The Freestyle has a single engine and transmission combination: a 3.0-liter/203-horse Duratec V-6 mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Unlike conventional transmissions, which have a fixed number of ratios (usually four, five, or sometimes six), a CVT has an infinite number of ratios, making it much more efficient, aiding performance and, particularly, fuel economy. Even so, the engine is seriously challenged by the Freestyle's curb weight and provides marginal acceleration, especially with a full load of passengers and their stuff.
Within your first few minutes of driving the Freestyle, it's immediately apparent that this vehicle drives differently than a typical SUV. The Freestyle reacts to steering inputs as a car would, promptly and without delay. It doesn't suffer the head tossing side-to-side ride motions also common to truck-based sport/utes, and it has a comfortable, mannered ride. The cabin is a quiet and pleasant, with respectable comfort for nigh all passengers. Ford tries to get the most out of the engine with the CVT, but the Freestyle remains sluggish. The CVT, although very efficient, exacerbates the perception that you're waiting for the engine to catch up to your performance demands. During acceleration, the engine revs don't climb then drop with each shift; they quickly climb then stay constant as the car's speed increases, which some drivers may find disconcerting. Unfortunately, the 3.0-liter engine isn't the most refined powerplant and therefore calls greater attention to itself. The Freestyle was developed to launch with a more powerful 3.5-liter powerplant that simply wasn't available in time. The 3.0L is the Achilles heel for this otherwise well-conceived and -executed family vehicle.
The Freestyle's superior ride, handling, packaging, and ingress/egress give it a leg up on most conventional SUVs for daily use. Look for the Freestyle and other vehicles like it to steal more and more sales from truck-based SUVs, as families realize they're a better solution to their driving needs. Conventional SUVs are still superior for those looking to tow a heavy trailer--the Freestyle tows only 2,000 pounds as compared with the Explorer's 7,000. They're also more capable off road, and by off road we mean terrain tougher than dirt two-tracks, which the Freestyle can easily handle. Compared with a station wagon, the Freestyle offers better passenger accommodations, with a higher seating position, and a standard--and usable--third-row seat. Fuel economy is much better than that of Ford's own Explorer, with 20/27 city/highway mpg as compared with the heavier SUV's 15/21.
The well-composed Freestyle is the crossover vehicle that most Explorer intenders should consider, with better road manners, interior packaging, fuel economy, and sticker price.
Roomy interior Standard third seat Carlike ride and handling
No CVT alternative Overtaxed, unrefined engine No stability control available
The Freestyle was brand new for 2005, so the changes for 2006 are relatively minor. A navigation system is a new option, and leather upholstery and power-adjustable pedals are more widely available.
We strongly recommend the side and curtain airbags for safety. Snow-state residents likely will want the Haldex full-time four-wheel-drive system, despite its attendant weight and fuel-economy penalties. Parents will almost certainly want the rear-seat DVD player. The reverse-parking aide is good for those who need some assistance when parking. And for those who need guidance on the open road, there's an optional navigation system.