From the beginning, Ford engineers admitted to us that this Year of the Car business really starts with the Freestyle, a cross-over sport-utility. The Freestyle is the most important derivative of the vehicle architecture Ford has borrowed from Volvo, a carlike crossover sport-ute that arrives just in time to pick up the sales slack as truck-based SUVs seem ever more clumsy and old-fashioned.
If you see the shadow of the Volvo XC90 in the Freestyle, you've got keen eyes, because the fundamental vehicle architecture is the same. Like the Volvo, this Ford is an outstanding people package, and it offers three rows of seats, each succeeding row higher than the last for optimal visibility for the passengers. The Freestyle is also a great cargo device, as there's a surprising 22 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the third seat (most three-row sport-utes are surprising in a bad way), and the front passenger seat folds flat to afford even more room.
Many of the Volvo XC90's best attributes are in place as well. The Haldex all-wheel-drive system responds to slippery surfaces with notable quickness. The body structure is stout. As in the Ford Five Hundred and the Mercury Montego, there are side air bags and canopy-type head protection bags (although it's unforgivable that both are packaged as options instead of standard equipment). The doors open wide, the step-in height is low, and there's plenty of legroom, although the thinly padded rear seats are short on comfort.
Also like the Volvo, the Freestyle isn't exactly overpowered, as the same 203-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 featured in the Five Hundred does business here. It's overmatched by both the 4112-pound awd Freestyle and the 3959-pound fwd version. The standard CVT helps improve response and delivers about 27 mpg on the highway for the 2wd version. The Freestyle doesn't feel as sluggish as the XC90, but it has the Volvo's characteristic road rumble from the tires and some harshness over bumps.
Ford figures the price of the Freestyle will start at about $25,500, and all-wheel drive will carry about a $1700 premium. As with the Five Hundred, practicality and utility are the key attributes here. The Freestyle reminds us that the Great American Car is really a sport-ute-or a crossover-these days.