To be frank, the 2003 Ford Freestar is a dowdy looking vehicle of ponderous proportions. Its short, squat body is purely utilitarian. The bulging fender flairs, which look like they were added as a stylistic afterthought, make the van look like a chubby woman in stretchy pants when viewed from behind. As a lover of cars, I should hate everything about it.
But I can’t hate it. The short squat body makes getting in and out easy for my wife and kids, and “utilitarian” means “good” when you are talking about a people mover. From the front, the van’s large headlights, sweeping windshield and square grill give it an honest, open face that is pleasant to look at and, the truth is, I am a sucker for a pretty face.
Inside, the Freestar’s seats are wide and comfortable and the amenities are on par with most other mini vans of the era. The middle seats are removable, while the rearmost bench folds into the floor at the pull of just a couple of straps. Auto reviewers might decry the interior surfaces, most of which are molded in textured hard plastic that looks and feels cheap, but every parent who has suffered a car sick child absolutely approves of hard plastic, and so do I.
In general, the Freestar is a nice place to be, so nice that I have taken to calling ours “The Gray Lady.” It is comfortable and quiet on the move, and the low dash and enormous windshield put the driver right out front. On the road, the van feels substantial and solid, like a 70s luxury barge, and it floats over the roughest of Buffalo roads with surprising smoothness. The steering is slightly on the heavy side, but it feels appropriate for the vehicle. The brakes are generally decent, but you do feel the weight of the vehicle when you use them. Short stops are best avoided in non emergency situations. My only complaint was that the power train felt unsophisticated. The engine strained more than it should, and the transmission did hunt around for gears or up-shifted into overdrive at times when the engine speed was too low to support it. For an otherwise well sorted vehicle, that seemed odd to me, so I decided to investigate.
A little research told me that the Freestar suffers from transmission troubles. Fortunately, Ford was aware of the problem and had offered a recall. Although the Gray Lady hadn’t suffered a problem yet, it was acting strangely enough that I decided to ask my local Ford dealer about it. Sure enough, a quick VIN check revealed that my van was subject to the recall, so I took it in. A week later I had it back in the at home as good as new, or so I thought.
Three months after the recall work was done, I was out with the family when the trouble started. If the van had been fitted with a manual transmission, I would have thought it had a slipping clutch. The engine revved willingly but the power wasn’t getting to the wheels and, as we drove along, the car began to gradually slow. Once I realized there was no correlation between my tach and speedometer, I began working my way across the lanes towards the shoulder and not 30 seconds later all forward travel had ceased. We were quite literally left to be Found On Roadside Dead.
With the engine still running, we had heat and power so we were all warm and safe. To the great delight of my children, the police soon came and sat behind us with all their lights ablaze while shocked passers-by pressed their noses up against the windows as they went by and stared at what they surely assumed to be the Corleone family finally getting their comeuppance. Thanks to AAA, a tow truck and then a taxi arrived a few minutes after the police and my reputation was saved. We separated there, the wife and kids heading home by taxi while I stayed with the van while it was loaded. I rode with the tow truck driver to the closest Ford dealership.
This is the point where I confess that I have a problem with car dealerships and that I come from a long line of Ford haters. The Freestar is the first Ford product I have ever owned, and I told myself that this would be a real litmus test for the Ford Motor Company. If I was treated poorly, I decided that I would never again purchase another of their products. Also, I told myself, that if Ford failed to make the grade in any way that I would voice my disdain for them long and loud to everyone who would listen and, thanks to the Internet, that number is considerable these days.
Fortunately for Ford, this isn‘t an angry screed, it’s a love letter. My local Ford shop was amazing. They were open and honest with me throughout the whole experience and, although the factory ended up rejecting the claim (the recall it turned out was for the torque converter while the failed part was a pump) my local dealer presented me with several easy to understand options. The bad news is that I ended up paying $3765 for a new transmission with a four-year warranty, but the good news for Ford is that my dealer also worked with me to keep the costs down as much as possible and, as a result of their effort, I don’t feel like I was taken advantage of. The van is, after all, 10 years old with almost 125K miles on the clock. Things like this happen with older vehicles, I know, so the fact that the dealer actually waived some of the labor was unexpected but much appreciated.
The main reason I chose to repair the Freestar is that we will be moving overseas again in a couple of years and it doesn’t make sense for me to go out and drop tens of thousands of dollars on a new van while our ultimate destination is still up in the air. Also, the Freestar is our family vehicle and, despite having two other cars in the driveway, the van is the one we use to carry our kids around and it is the vehicle my wife drives most often. I figured it was worth the extra cost of a new transmission to ensure my wife and kids’ safety. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and I still think so.
Today, six months later, the Gray Lady is still a nice place to be. The view out the front is as panoramic as ever, and the ride is still stately and smooth. Even better, my prior complaint about the unsophisticated power train has fallen by the wayside. The engine is quieter, smoother and seems to strain less. The transmission is wonderfully smooth and shifts decisively at just the right RPMs. It is a genuine pleasure to drive.
Like so many work-a-day vehicles, the Freestar does exactly what it is supposed to do: haul my family around in the most unremarkable way possible. Moreover, as detailed above, the one bit of drama I did have was resolved quickly and efficiently thanks to my friendly dealer and, although I walked away from the experience with a smaller bank account, I did not walk away angry. Ford passed the test, and as a result not only will I shop them again in the future, I will sing their praises for all who want to listen. Ford, you did a great job.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.