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.