If the new Ford Freestar/Mercury Monterey minivans demonstrate anything, it's that a new name is a lot cheaper than new sheetmetal. The Freestar and Monterey monikers attach to one of the most innocuous "redesigns" in automotive history. Even serious minivan enthusiasts, were there such a thing, would have a tough time telling the new Freestar from the old Windstar. Ford says that what counts in a minivan is the inside and that people don't care about a minivan's looks, or why would they buy one in the first place? Touch, Ford. There's so much spin on that argument that it almost fully rotates back to the truth.
So the Freestar and the upscale Monterey-Mercury having ditched its Nissan Quest partner and Villager nameplate-deliver a minivan with all the emphasis on the interior.
The cabin has been gutted and the Windstar's blobs and swoops replaced by a very J Maysian execution of strict horizontal lines, small buttons, and high-quality materials. Interior noise levels have plummeted, offering the Freestar/Monterey driver a calmer perch and less intrusion from either the 3.9- or the 4.2-liter OHV V-6. (In a pattern that soon will become familiar to Ford and Mercury cross-shoppers, the latter engine is standard on the Monterey, optional on the Freestar.) The removable, still-heavy second-row seats (62 pounds each) fold out of the way, and the third-row bench hides in the floor la Honda, Mazda, and Toyota. An obligatory DVD player is standard on the Mercury and available on the Ford, and there are standard side curtain air bags that serve all three rows. If there's one knock on the new interior, it's that the seat bottoms are too low to the floor, forcing second- and third-row passengers' knees into their headgear.
The Freestar/Monterey drives with more discipline than the Windstar, with tighter steering and firmer brakes. But the unsophisticated beam axle at the rear allows bumps to crash through the cabin and some corkscrewing to assert itself on undulating roads. In the dynamics department, it's still no Honda Odyssey. But it's no Windstar, either.