2006 Ford Freestyle Limited AWD: An SUV-Wagon for the Middle of the Road

Automotive journalists are well-known for decrying the SUV craze-in part selfishly, as we enjoy driving exciting vehicles, and reviewing truck after truck after truck can become tedious. “Why,” we’re always lamenting, “why don’t consumers buy wagons?” After all, the station wagon offers similar utility, better fuel economy, and usually better pricing than the typical SUV does, and their lower centers of gravity and weights make for more sporting machines, on average.

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So, when a vehicle like the Ford Freestyle hits the market-boasting SUV character and car underpinnings-we rejoice. The typical review of such an SUV-alternative will spend hundreds of words extolling its sharp handling and other dynamic virtues, although in truth, rising SUV sales show that consumers largely don’t care. No matter is it’s equipped with all-wheel-drive, wearing some new name meant to evoke the great outdoors (Prairie Dog Bush Country Back-road edition), even cladded with gaudy brush guards and similar useless protrusions-to many buyers, a station wagon just cannot mimic the rugged appeal of the Sport Utility Vehicle.

Ford, then, has made some wise choices in the Freestyle’s design. At over five feet, it’s tall enough to escape the station wagon stigma, and it’s even longer than an Explorer. Moreover, Ford’s Command Seating gives a decidedly SUV-like view over most other traffic. The exterior design, too, relates more to Ford’s truck line than their sedans-although it lacks the SUV-specific “E-something” corporate nomenclature (Escape, Explorer, Expedition, Et Cetera). A roof rack adds a touch of practicality to the visual mix as well. The overall impression is definitely more SUV-like than wagon-ish.

So, with 7-passenger capability and the veneer of SUV-hood, but mechanically based on the Volvo S80-derived Five Hundred chassis, we figured the Freestyle would blend the best attributes of SUVs and wagons. It succeeded in some areas-roominess, that coveted view over traffic-but dynamically, it falls a little short. Generally, a low center of gravity, independent suspension front & rear, and unibody construction means an escape from the SUV handling doldrums. Never intended for zealous driving, though, the Freestyle leans through even moderate curves like it’s had a few too many before starting home. Under stress, the 225/60 rubber lies down like a submissive dog-for shame, Pirelli (and our tester wore the optional 18-inch alloys instead of the standard 17s). Thanks to the laws pf physics, the Freestyle is more stable than the average SUV-just no more fun. Nothing about this wagon encourages envelope-pushing, and perhaps that’s a good thing in light of the Freestyle’s family-friendly mission. During those rare moments when we found ourselves alone on an inviting stretch of road, however, it simply left us cold.

Motive deficiency is partly at fault, as well. Kin to the Ford Five Hundred sedan, all Freestyles have the 3.0-liter V6 under the hood-although rumor has it that Ford’s product planners had intended to fit the Freestyle with the 3.5-liter six, currently fitted in the new Edge crossover and rated at 265hp. The bigger motor couldn’t be built is sufficient quantity at the time, or so the story goes, although the official word is that next year’s models will get it. For now, though, with almost two tons to move, and only 203 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque to do it with, the Duratec seems overmatched-the protesting roar under anything beyond light throttle does not encourage pedal-to-the-metal behavior. Our tester was further saddled with the all-wheel-drive system; a boon in bad weather or other slick situations, but it constantly saps away torque and adds another couple hundred pounds. Under testing, we managed to coax a 9-second 0-to-60 m.p.h. time out of it, but the Freestyle is not meant for drag racing.

Standard on both Freestyles and their sedan siblings is a six-speed automatic transmission, but our AWD example added a continuously-variable transmission. The benefits of CVTs should be familiar to most by now-an absence of power-wasting shift gaps and the ability to maintain an optimal gear ratio for any engine speed and load. While we appreciate the efficiency of the design, when swiftness was called for we did find ourselves bemoaning the CVT’s insistence on holding engine revs constant. Our averaged mileage of just under 20 m.p.g. speaks well of the overall package, however-especially considering how often we mashed the throttle to wheedle some speed out of it all.

So we dropped all pretense of driving the Freestyle like a sports-wagon, packed up the kids, and evaluated it in its intended setting. Here it excelled; the kids loved the fort-like third row in almost the same way we remember enjoying riding in our own mom’s station wagon decades ago. (Perhaps Ford should look into rear-facing kiddie seats again-that was always the best part.) The reasonably-priced $995 DVD player was a hit, as always, and the speed at which the kids deciphered the workings of the remote control and wireless headphones put our own technical prowess to shame. Passengers of all ages appreciated the Freestyle’s smooth ride, and with 12 cupholders on board, no beverage found itself without a home.

The reclining second-row bench proved comfortable for kids or adults, too, even in the nearly hump-less middle spot. With a full complement of passengers onboard, 22.5 cubic feet of cargo space resides behind the third row. If you’re moving stuff, not people, an also-impressive 87′ and a flat load floor appear when you fold over both rows-we’ve tested many an SUV with markedly less utility.

The cabin in general is a high point, in fact. We liked the three-zone climate control, the steering wheel’s controls for audio and cruise control, the multitude of storage cubbies and cupholders, and the $195 optional power-adjustable pedals. Our tester also carried the $295 reverse sensing system-compare that price to similar systems from luxury brands-which made parallel parking a much less onerous task.

Aesthetically, the Freestyle’s interior design is attractive, in a functional way. The white-faced gauges are striking, and we appreciated the trip computer. Some of the materials, however, did not impress-hard plastics on the console, dash and door panels seemed especially cheap, as did the fake wood appliqué.

Our loaded Limited-model Freestyle’s console was dominated by a $1,995 navigation system. With touch-screen capability, this unit is a definite improvement over other systems we’ve seen in past Ford press demonstrators. Although not as intuitive as the unit Lexus and now Mazda use, the Freestyle’s nav also featured a relatively lucid user interface. A six-disc CD changer is integrated into this head unit, and we found the audio system to be passably pleasing to the ear.

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Anti-lock brakes and traction control are standard on all models, and in side-impact, frontal and rollover tests, NHTSA gives the Freestyle top marks. For a family-focused vehicle, however, we were surprised not only at the lack of stability control, but the $695 additional cost for side and curtain airbags.

Pricing is a bit of a sticking point with the Freestyle. When we were first introduced to this crossover, we were presented with a cloth-upholstered SE model, wearing a $25,105 sticker. Our tester this week, however, was a Limited model, equipped with AWD, nav, moonroof and so on, and bearing a gasp-inducing $37,150 pricetag. Of course, real-world transaction prices surely include thousands in incentives; and there really is a lot of content here-but $37 grand goes a long way on a lot of dealer lots, and personally we’d look hard at the other options before going this route. At $25k, and still packing the 7-passenger seating, copious cargo room, and full-size feel, the base Freestyle makes a much better case for itself.

As long as you’re not looking at the Freestyle as a sporty alternative to the SUV, everything about it is at least adequate, even the powertrain. As a family transport vehicle, it boasts several selling points, and bests the competition in some key areas. Still, Ford itself hasn’t shown a lot of faith in the Freestyle, first saddling it with a stopgap deficient powertrain and then publicly proclaiming the whole line’s demise (a statement they later retracted). It’s not surprising, then, that sales have fallen short of expectations. All told, however, we’d still recommend the Freestyle over a host of real SUVs-especially if and when that 3.5-liter makes an appearance. Furthermore, we applaud Ford for not building yet another SUV in the first place.