By on February 23, 2013

2003 Ford Freestar

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.

The 1978 Action Thriller starring Charlton Heston as your brave Captain

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.

2003 Ford Freestar Interior

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.

2003 Ford Freestar sans stretchypants

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.

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44 Comments on “Gray Lady Down: A Tale of Rescue and Redemption...”

  • avatar

    “We were quite literally left to be Found On Roadside Dead.”

    No, and thank goodness for that. Fear not, though; “literally” is perhaps the most abused word in the language today.

    • 0 avatar

      The occupants were fortunately alive and well. The van had the mobility of a heated tool shed and that was what was – literally – Found On Road Dead.

    • 0 avatar
      01 ZX3

      Yes, Ford used the trans. from the Taurus in the Windstar and Freestar.

      These vans really are crap. My family had a ’95 that went through 3 transmissions and had various other issues. Then inexplicably, my parents bought an ’03 Windstar. The passenger side window motor died as we were leaving the dealer. It would later go through the driver side window motor, the rear window motors, the rear defroster, the torque converter, the reverse sensors in the bumper, and the fuel pump.

  • avatar

    Hmmm. I dunno. $3765 for a new tranny that was designed in the 90s. I mean, helpful or not, the dealer made some serious cash on this deal, probably a $2k profit. You would’ve likely only saved $500 by shopping around.

    Your Freestar looks pristine, so I assume the thing was never abused. That tranny should’ve lasted another 35k miles. I wonder, however: do automakers put less-robust passenger-car trannies in their minivans?? I imagine a truck tranny would last longer but would be heavier and less efficient.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Weimer

      Since all minivans nowadays are front-wheel drive, and trucks are rear-wheel drive, it would be hard to put a truck transmission in one.

    • 0 avatar

      “I wonder, however: do automakers put less-robust passenger-car trannies in their minivans??”

      I believe so and I have often wondered why this is the case since minivans weigh significantly more and are more likely to be used in more transmission-abusive city driving. The only conclusion I can come to is they are more intended to be throwaway vehicles than their car counterparts. When I worked in the business the minivans never gathered as much attention/intrest on the block, it was simply assumed they were more beaten up than an equivalent car regardless of mileage.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    If it only needed a transmission pump, why did you buy an entire transmission? Here is demonstrated forcefully TTAC’s widespread perpetuation of unfounded urban legends, especially the one about allegedly bad transmission in minivans. And good god, why even let a dealership come within a 20 mile radius of such a situation?

    It seems pretty obvious, according to a couple of very knowledgeable local transmission mechanics that the Ford recall service that was done at that vehicle was the cause of the transmission failure a short time later. And then the stealership has the gall to sell a new transmission!

    Chrysler minivan trannies are regularly and ignorantly assailed on these pages, when in the vast majority of cases, a simple draining of the recent hamhanded Jiffy Lube flush, and installing the fluid recommended by Chrysler produces a “rebuilt” transmission for under 200 bucks.

    It is highly-likely that this vehicle could have been returned to the road for another 100,000 miles of dependable driving for under 1000 bucks, had it been dealt with properly by an independent and honest transmission shop, of which are legend. Furthermore, a quick glance through my local Craigslist demonstrated tons of Freestars, some of which already had new transmissions for under $3,000 from local owners.

    The uninformed public pays a heavy consequence for TTAC’s lazy and dishonest journalism.

    • 0 avatar

      While I agree with your questioning of the dealership’s involvement in the untimely failure of the transmission, I do not think that he could have fixed the issue with out replacing the complete transmission. If the pump in the transmission was not working, heat caused by sloppy shifts, slipping clutches, and lack of circulation would have caused damage to the clutches that would still be there after pump replacement.
      Also flushing a trans with approved fluid is not the same as rebuilding. Rebuilding a transmission requires some level of disassembly.

    • 0 avatar

      It is neither lazy nor dishonest, it is a retelling of what actually happened. I suppose, had I been more familiar with the region and local shops, I might have saved a few dollars, but having the transmission replaced gave me peace of mind.

      Of course I knew when I posted this story that I would get a number of responses telling me I was taken advantage of, I want to hear those because it will help others to be better informed than I was. However, I did not expect to be called a liar for telling what happened.

      To others who have questioned the condition of the van, it is in nice shape but had a couple of rust issues when I bought it. I had it repaired to bring it up to snuff and regularly monitor those issues. As I said in the article, we won’t be here forever and there isn’t a point in spending a bunch more money on something else. I practically stole it when I bought it anyhow so a few more bucks in repairs haven’t left me too deeply in the hole.

      • 0 avatar

        Don’t sweat it. Not worth it really.

        Great story, thanks.

      • 0 avatar

        BTW Thomas this was a great story. I hope you and TTAC work out because I have enjoyed reading your stories so far.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m puzzled that someone would call this article “lazy and dishonest”. In fact, it’s an honest, forthright piece. I enjoyed its candor and upbeat tone.

        Everyone gets ripped off to a certain extent with autotranny repairs. It’s a fact of life, regardless of anecdotes to the contrary. The author got a brand new tranny with a warranty. I’d trust that a lot more than something I pulled off a wreck at a junkyard. It’s safer for his family and safer for the guy he’ll eventually sell the van to……

        I only drive sticks, to avoid the rip-off morass. But where to find a minivan/stick?? Maybe Europe? What’s a family guy to do?

      • 0 avatar

        Admittedly it’s been a few year but I used to buy those transmissions from my supplier for $1695 with a 4yr 50k warranty, and I’d get the customer out the door for under $2500 with tax.

    • 0 avatar

      Larry P2
      > The uninformed public pays a heavy consequence
      > for TTAC’s lazy and dishonest journalism.

      Larry, you make me wish for an “Ignore” button, on which I could click once and then all your comments would be always hidden from me.

    • 0 avatar

      Larry P2: Warning and advisement. Refrain from attacking TTAC writers, or commenters. This goes for everybody.

      If that transmission indeed could have been a “rebuilt” with a drain and the correct fluid, then the dealer who sold Thomas the new one should be called dishonest, not the author.

      To all: The TTAC commenting policy (see FAQ, top menu) says “No personal attacks on other commenters or TTAC authors. Disagreement is no attack, name calling is.”

    • 0 avatar

      “Chrysler minivan trannies are regularly and ignorantly assailed on these pages, when in the vast majority of cases, a simple draining of the recent hamhanded Jiffy Lube flush, and installing the fluid recommended by Chrysler produces a “rebuilt” transmission for under 200 bucks.”

      We bought a 1991 Chrysler Minivan with a 604 automatic transmission. We bought it new at the dealer. By the time we sold it, it was on its fourth transmission. All service on the transmissions had been done by the Dodge dealer. Talk to a service manager at a Mopar dealer about the 604 slushbox and he or she will roll their eyes.

    • 0 avatar

      “It seems pretty obvious, according to a couple of very knowledgeable local transmission mechanics that the Ford recall service that was done at that vehicle was the cause of the transmission failure a short time later. And then the stealership has the gall to sell a new transmission!”

      Well this is why specialists like AAMCO exist, if I ever got into a transmission situation my first stop is the transmission shop I’ve dealt with in the past. Recommending a whole part be installed vs troubleshooting the existing part is a common support issue in MANY industries. In my experience it usually relates to the tech/employee who does the diagnosis not fully understanding the problem or product, not necessarily a ripoff conspiracy.

      “Furthermore, a quick glance through my local Craigslist demonstrated tons of Freestars, some of which already had new transmissions for under $3,000 from local owners.”

      Okay so you have a somewhat clean van, with a known service life, and a bum tranny so without a working tranny its worth a hair above scrap value. You’re going to go out and buy someone else’s (albeit with a fixed tranny) but also buy a myriad of other potential problems, not to mention an unknown service life. Thomas ran into a catch-22 just like many of us have with old cars and high dollar work needing completed. Unless I despise the car that blew up on me (or its a POS not worth fixing) I would fix it all the same. I’m not so sure the journalism is dishonest or lazy in this case. Caveat emptor.

    • 0 avatar

      “If it only needed a transmission pump, why did you buy an entire transmission?”

      Because no one at the dealerships rebuilds transmissions.

      • 0 avatar


        Maybe at an independent transmission shop they would have replaced only the pump, but with the high amount of labor involved in R&Ring a FWD transaxle, it makes more sense just to drop a fully-remanufactured transmssion in and be done with it (plus then you get the warranty). No shop in their right mind would provide any kind of overall transmission warranty if only the pump was replaced.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I’m glad to hear Ford passed your test. Unfortunately they failed mine- my wife’s Edge is the first new domestic car our combined families have bought in literally decades. We got the HD cooling system because she travels a lot. One of the dual fans went out at 61398 miles, a $1000 repair. Ford shrugged. A two year old car.

    While I find the Flex and the Escape interesting vehicles, they are not on my list as I currently car shop. Come to think of it, no domestic is.

    BTW, I love odes to minivans. They rock, achieve their hauling duties admirably, and are a badge of honor announcing you’re a dad (or mom). What better badge will you ever achieve?

    • 0 avatar

      A “dual fan”? I am assuming one of the cooling fans for the radiator. How could this possibly cost $1,000? A quick online check shows about $150. Say the stealership charges $250. Labor to install? Let’s be generous and say 2 hours. At $100/hr, that’s $200, for a total $450. I call pure BS on this claim.

  • avatar

    Buffalo? How is it not totally rusted out. EVERYTHING rusts away in Buffalo!

  • avatar

    $3765?!?! Did you get a kiss afterwards?

    I guy I know had his 2000 Taurus with 200k fail in similar fashion. The dealership wanted $1800 to fix it, so he was sending it to the scrap yard. I bought it from him for scrap value. Removed the valve body, and inspected the pump. No problem. Pump drive shaft was OK too. That left the torque converter. $100 for new torque converter and $350 for a boneyard trans with less miles. Sold it for a nice profit. I still see it on the road. $3765?… That’s CVT30 territory.

    $3765 is about 75% of what it’s worth!

  • avatar

    I used to buy off lease WIndstars when I was driving 50K+ miles per year as an agent. Fairly good buys and the vehicles were enjoyable to drive and had plenty of room. Mileage was OK too. But the transmissions would go out around 100K and I would put in a ‘ford rebuilt one’. Generally it lasted between 25 and 50K. Brakes wore out quickly and were expensive to repair/replace warped rotors. Had to retorque the lug nuts every time i had the tires rotated.
    I have been driving a SIenna and it it much more reliable than the old Windstars. I am not a buyer for Detroit iron any more. Their products do not stand the test of time. Sad but they are not in the same class as some of the imports. Except for their pickups, they have little to offer me.

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    When you buy a new Ford you automatically go on line and buy one of their extended factory warranties “ESP” for cheap. Cost me $730 for the 7 yr 100K “Basic” warranty, which covers the stuff that will keep you from getting to work. The ability to get an extended factory warranty from a low-buck internet operator so far as I know is unique to Ford and a real plus for Ford, in my opinion.

    Ford seems to be challenged in making good automatic transmissions. I noticed a hand-written note taped to the computer terminal of the dealer’s shop saying something like “No new appointments for transmission repairs for (I forget model) until (a date about six weeks out)!”

    Anyway, I like seeing an article about a mini-van. People who write for car magazines and car sites hate them, but in the real world they are highly useful, convenient, comfortable, good-visibility reasonable gas mileage cars.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I understand Thomas’ decision. Maybe it was a high price for a tranny rebuild (my car’s was similar), but apparently he knows every inch of that vehicle intimately and has confidence in the rest of it.

    Up until this year when my car hit the 200k/12 year milestone, I had no problem tossing $1000-1500 yearly in maintenance. It’s much cheaper than $6000 a year in payments. The past 18 months I’ve done the front end work it needed ($1200), and a bunch of usual preventative maintenance ($1000 – timing belt, water pump, plugs, filters, hoses, etc). The water pump was my choice – I originally wanted to do it at 100k miles, but my mechanic said it wasn’t necessary.

    I plan to retire it to our vacation spot up north to save on the cost of a rental ($1000 yearly). Meanwhile, I know exactly it’s mechanical status and what to expect in the future. With the light duty it’ll be getting, I expect another 15-20 years of service out of it.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m with you. Thats what i do for my vehicles. But i do the work myself.

      I have done about $750 of repairs last year on my pickup. Labor done by myself. That was brakes, injection pump, injectors. Seeing as I’m still only $1000 into this truck with purchase I’m doing good.

      This year I’m going to do ball joints, tie rods. Transmission also needs a new torque converter. So another $400 or so in repairs.

      Plus i always have a need for a pickup so it should stick around for a long time.

      I’ll supplement it with a car to ease the commute.

      • 0 avatar
        Dave M.

        @Onus – annnnnd I’m officially jealous. Unfortunately I was not born with the mechanical/patience gene, so I always write checks. But a huge hat tip to those who can and do.

        It’s funny, I was shopping a new Outback today and noticed the oil filter on top of the engine. I MAY BE ABLE TO DO THAT.

    • 0 avatar

      What the heck are you guys doing to your vehicles that require $1000 per year? I had a $400 Catalytic converter repair on the ’83 Turbo Coupe a couple years ago and $600 in brake lines on the ’96 Taurus last year. Anything that costs me $1000/yr is GONE.

  • avatar

    What, no mention by the readers of a comparison to Honda Odyssey transmissions and how they crap out even sooner? Amazing!

    • 0 avatar

      “What, no mention by the readers of a comparison to Honda Odyssey transmissions and how they crap out even sooner?” For the record, mine did exactly that, much sooner than Thomas K’s van. Crapped out at 5 yrs old 70K miles, ATF changed with only Honda brand from the dealer at 20K, 30k and every 7-10K miles thereafter. Honda crap transmission. It’s a fact.

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Momma

    Perhaps if you’d checked you might’ve found a $1200 low-mileage transmission then parted with, oh-I-don’t-know another $500 for installation. I understand that you hoped the failure was related to the work that Ford had already done – but they had you over the proverbial barrel because they had to disassemble your transmission before they could tell you they WEREN’T responsible for the failure. Really was a no-win situation. The skeptic in me says Ford’s prior work contributed to the failure but good luck chasing that mirage.

    Also, I’m glad to see that you’re a regular now. You’ve joined the great pantheon of Murilee, Baruth, Schmitt and more. I just wish you’d retrieved the Honda Dream after your brother dumped the project so I could expect more on that topic.

    • 0 avatar

      Kenny might as well be my brother, but there is no blood relation. That story is impossibly old and Kenny did actually get the bike after his father passed away. It was at his house waiting to be repaired when his marriage dissolved. He tells me that the bike was one of those things that ‘disappeared” in a rather hostile fight with his now ex wife.

      He does have a big Honda these days and he tells me that he often thinks of his dad when he is out on the road.

      Don’t worry though, Kenny will reappear in future stories I am sure…

  • avatar

    I assumed that you could buy a 120,000 mile Ford Freestyle for a lot less than a 120,000 mile Honda Odyssey. Much to my surprise, a quick web search showed asking prices between the two vans are not that different. I really thought that you could save the cost of the transmission based on the purchase price. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

    • 0 avatar

      The Ford FreeSTYLE and the Ford FreeSTAR are two very different vehicles with similar names. The Freestyle is a crossover utility that probably still brings premium money because that style of vehicle is so popular right now.

      The Freestar is a traditional sliding-door minivan that goes for considerably less money than just about any other used minivan out there right now. I bought mine dirt cheap so the repairs I had to make didn’t sting as badly as it might have if I had given more money.

      I doubt I will recoup my investment when the time comes to sell, but for now at least we move around in decent comfort and I still don’t have a car payment of any kind.

  • avatar

    ..and that is why I row my own.. while I haven’t lost an automatic in at least 15 years, they were cheaper then versus now. I suppose in the author’s situation, the repair was warranted and apprently he is happy with his decision. Win win. For me though, a four thousand dollar bill for anything automotive is simply beyond my limits.

    Regarding the dealer, this one of those deals where if he did say, fix it on the cheap and it broke down a month later, no one would be happy.
    So fix it once and be done with it. Unfortunately that does come with a price, as shown here. Either way, it will add to the resale value. If the minivan owes him nothing now, he is more than likely to recoup the cost of the trans on the resale.

  • avatar

    Whenever I hear anyone mention a Windstar or Freestar, it is in a horror story 95% of the time. Rust, transmissions, head gaskets…

    Glad you like yours, anyway.

  • avatar

    This story gives me flashbacks to my days as a rental car employee. I spent a lot of time in these vehicles shuttling employees and customers around. For some reason I liked the Windstars better than the Freestars. There was just something about how it felt and sounded, specifically the steering wheel, that I preferred. Overall, The Ford vans did not incite hatred in me or other rental employees, like the circa 2005 Kia Sedona. It was just a competent appliance

  • avatar

    Thanks, to the author for bringing this tale to light, warts and all. It brings a tone of first person narrative not too heavily loaded with baggage. Not just “my grandma likes it”, lightly or heavily slanted paraphrasing of press releases, or bashing and trolling than appears here often.

  • avatar

    Now, if this van has the 3.8l engine, check your coolant level at every fuel stop! Intake manifold gaskets are a ticking time bomb (neighbor had a 3.8l Windstar – absolutely the worst vehicle that I have ever seen and I am generally an American car booster).

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