It seems that the 1990s was the decade of the SUV in the United States. During that time, we saw the market go from only a handful of different models to dozens and dozens of different choices. Every carmaker had to offer at least one SUV model to be competitive, if not more. That momentum has continued into the 2000s, but consumers’ tastes are ever so slightly changing. Whether it be because of higher gas prices or simply a desire of consumers to want something more than the lumbering feel of large body-on-frame SUVs, the market is trending towards somewhat smaller and better handling “crossover” vehicles. Crossovers blend the looks of an SUV with the handling dynamics of a car, thanks to their unit-body construction. In fact, most of these vehicles are based directly on car platforms. It is predicted that the crossover segment could be the fastest growing segment in the American automotive market over the next few years. In the second part of an ongoing series on Ford’s “Year of the Car,” AutomotiveArticles.com looks at Ford’s latest crossover, the Freestyle.
|Courtesy: Ford Motor Company|
Ford Motor Company has definitely been a major benefactor of the SUV boom of the ‘90s, its Explorer the top-selling sport ‘ute for most of the decade. The full-size Expedition and Lincoln Navigator models were no sales losers, either. Despite their good fortune with the truck-based SUVs of the past, Ford senses the winds of change that are starting to blow through the market. This is why Ford has proclaimed this the “Year of the Car” (see our Five Hundred article for more), and this is why they are readying what seems to be a direct competitor to their own Explorer. The Explorer’s position in the market is becoming vulnerable as people look for something easier to handle. Certainly the self-shredding Firestone tires and their related media scandal did nothing to help the Explorer’s image, as well.
Enter the Freestyle, a midsize, SUV-like wagon with three rows of seats and plenty of interior space. Yes, that’s the same basic formula that has made the Explorer popular, but the vehicles go their separate ways beyond that. The Explorer generally follows the body-on-frame SUV idiom: Tall, Tippy, and Truck-y. They are the dreaded three Ts that are slowly turning many consumers away. The Freestyle is the opposite of that in just about every way. It’s lower to the ground, eliminating the first two Ts; and the platform underpinning it is a version of the one that is underneath the Volvo S80 and Ford Five Hundred sedans. Yes, there is the possibility that the Freestyle could steal buyers away from brother Explorer. That is okay, as Ford would rather keep them in the Blue Oval family rather than see them buy other crossovers like the Chrysler Pacifica, Nissan Murano, Honda Pilot, or Toyota Highlander.
As mentioned earlier, the Freestyle is based on a platform originally designed by Volvo and adapted by Ford for use here and the Ford Five Hundred/Mercury Montego twin sedans. It is, essentially a FWD car platform rather than a body-on-frame RWD truck platform. It features a fully independent suspension (McPherson struts, coil-over rear shocks) and best in class torsional rigidity. A Halidex-style AWD system will be optional. The engine is Ford’s “Duratec 30” 3.0L V6 with 203hp@5750 rpm and 207ft-lbs@4500 rpm. Like its sedan counterpart, the Five Hundred, there is some concern as to whether this will be enough to propel the 4112-pound Freestyle at a rate comparable to some of the competition, like the 240hp Murano. Following Nissan’s lead, Ford will offer a continuously variable transmission – developed in its partnership with ZF. CVTs are often lauded for their ability to help reduce emissions and improve fuel economy without sacrificing performance, though they are only available in a select few vehicles in America. Showing its true car-based roots, the Freestyle can only tow 2000 lbs when properly equipped.
If a heavy-duty truck is what you want, we suggest you look elsewhere. The Freestyle was designed with passenger comfort and convenience at the top of the priority list. If you’d like, you can think of this “truck” as a minivan for those who don’t want the soft one-box look. The Freestyle offers room for seven adults throughout its three rows of seats – the third row folds flat into the floor a la Honda’s Odyssey. Ford claims that their crossover offers dozens of seating configurations to fit owners’ needs while offering the cargo space of a full-size SUV when the seats are folded. Freestyle will also offer best-in-class second and third row legroom. In fact, Ford claims no competitor offers as much combined passenger room in three rows as the Freestyle does.
|Courtesy: Ford Motor Company|
Storage space is crucial in a family vehicle such as the Freestyle, and Ford does not disappoint. As such, there’s a bin atop the instrument panel for front seat passengers, as well as space in the optional overhead console for items like sunglasses and garage-door openers. The bin under the center armrest of the first row offers a power point for cell phone or laptop chargers and includes a small cutout so that the cord does not get pinched when the bin lid is closed. Smart.
Overall aesthetics, inside and out, are clean and contemporary. The exterior features a squared off face and greenhouse design seen on other Ford SUVs like the Explorer and Expedition. The interior is a continued evolution of the themes presented in the latest Expedition and F-150 truck. It is, arguably, one of the highest-quality Ford interiors to date, at least in looks. While some have deemed the Freestyle the “Stylefree,” it wouldn’t be any surprise to see buyers flock to the safe choice.
Speaking of safety, Ford has no intentions of scrimping on occupant protection. Like the skeleton underneath the Freestyle, much of the safety systems inside the cabin are inspired by Volvo. The “Safety Canopy” airbag system offers head protection for all three rows during a side-impact collision or rollover. During a collision, the energy created is distributed throughout the vehicle through a cross-car tube developed for Volvo’s Side Impact Protection System. Ford expects the Freestyle to earn top marks in government and/or Insurance Institute crash-tests later this year.
|Courtesy: Ford Motor Company|
Whether the Freestyle meets your personal preference or not, it should be agreed upon by all that this (and other crossovers) is an example of SUVs evolving for the better. The Freestyle is simply more efficient than SUVs of the past. It offers better fuel efficiency, better environmental efficiency, and better space efficiency. It allows buyers to fit all of their friends and family, and their gear, into a much more manageable package than SUVs past. It will be interesting to see if buyers take to this more reasonable option, or stick to their Expeditions.