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Second-Hand: Ford Windstar

Welcome to Second-hand, a monthly column on used cars and trucks. Mark Toljagic has been a Wheels contributor since December, 1997.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Welcome to Second-hand, a monthly column on used cars and trucks. Mark Toljagic has been a Wheels contributor since December, 1997.

Toljagic also writes On the Cheap, a monthly column for bargain-hunters.

As North America’s self-anointed Wagonmaster, Ford already had two minivans on the market in 1994 when it introduced the Windstar, the culmination of all its engineers had learned while

unscrewing Chrysler’s Magic Wagons in their Dearborn workshop.

They confirmed that the key to car-like handling and cost-effective production was to use an existing automobile platform — in this case the Taurus — as the basis for a contemporary minivan. It was small wonder the minivan has been a success.

With so many in circulation and more coming off lease every day, the first-generation Windstar (1995-98) makes a good used-vehicle buy. Assembled in Oakville, it has the added appeal

of being a local hero.

CONFIGURATION

Unlike its Chrysler and GM counterparts, the Windstar is available with only one wheelbase, roughly equivalent to the extended models provided by the others. It is a little short on interior room compared to the Grand versions of the Chrysler twins, however.

Ford employs theatre seating, whereby each row of seats is mounted slightly higher than the seats in front. A neat idea, but the last row comes up a little short on headroom.

In a now-famous anecdote that has been recalled in consumer research textbooks and at product planners’ cocktail parties, Ford nixed a second sliding door after consumer focus groups

showed little interest.

Chrysler ignored similar research, offering it as an option on its 1996 models and was rewarded with massive sales. Go figure.

The second-generation Windstar, introduced last fall, finally addressed this deficiency.

The front-wheel drive Windstar is motivated by either of two V6 powerplants: a 3.0 L or a beefy 3.8 L mill. An automatic four-speed transmission and dual front airbags are standard on

all models.

ROAD RAVE

The Windstar earned critical acclaim when it hit showrooms in March, 1994 (note: that makes the earliest 1995 models five years old, not four, so pay attention to the date of manufacture

stamped on the driver’s door sill).

It was praised for its smooth and quiet ride, precise steering and highway stability.

The standard 3.0 L engine is a bit anemic, especially if you regularly shuttle a brood of junior hockey players and their gear. It’s not the engine of choice if your highway driving involves a lot of two-lane roads where passing is required. Get accustomed to studying the back ends of a lot of Winnebagos.

The 3.8 L transforms the van into an acceptable traveling companion, reaching 100 km/h from standstill in less than 11 seconds (not Mustang territory, but pretty good for a widebodied family container).

Take comfort in knowing that if the unspeakable occurs, you are safeguarded in the best-performing minivan in US government crash tests.

WHAT OWNERS SAY

The owners we spoke to were unabashedly happy with their vehicles. While many bought or leased a Windstar initially because of Ford’s hard-to-refuse incentives, they were genuinely

surprised at how trouble-free their vans have been. Bob Stinson tells a typical tale.

After his poor experience with a Chrysler minivan, he “took a chance” with the Windstar in 1996, which had yet to prove itself in the market. Three years and 140,000 km later, he was

delighted — so much so that he’s just acquired a second-generation model.

Other than a tune-up and the usual worn bits (tires and brakes), the ’96 never saw the inside of a garage. “We didn’t even change the muffler,” he adds.

Stinson did notice, however, that the large van required more frequent brake service than his Chrysler did.

Dave Knowlton, who’s been driving his ’98 for one year, remembers not finding a single defect when the van was delivered and, other than having a few interior trim pieces come loose,

had nothing negative to report.

Peter Wright had an altogether different experience.

He purchased a used 1995 model and put 50,000 km on it before the engine’s cylinder head and front cover gaskets failed, allowing anti-freeze to contaminate the oil.

Wright believes the 3.8 L V6 has a known head gasket problem, an issue he says was confirmed by a number of Toronto-area dealers. In fact, he says, Ford has quietly extended the

warranty on head gaskets to 100,000 km to keep its customers happy.

It was of little comfort to Wright, whose van had accumulated 112,000 km and was disqualified. Repairing the head gasket cost him $1,500. The timing chain cover gasket an additional $1,000. Sobering news.

THE EXPERTS’ VIEWS

A Ford technician was able to confirm that 3.8 L-equipped Windstars (and Taurus/Sable sedans) are beginning to show up with leaky head gaskets.

The damage is internal: acidic coolant mixes with the oil and begins to eat away at the engine’s bearings, ultimately destroying the motor.

Check for white foam on the underside of the oil filler cap or on the dipstick — a sure sign anti-freeze is comingling with the oil.

The problem is a common one with engines that use an aluminum head on a castiron block. The two metals expand and contract at different rates, causing tremendous stress on the gasket.

Ford’s supplier has engineered a better composite gasket that was not available even a year ago, so a remedy is at hand. However, headgasket replacement is a little like brain surgery

results may vary if not done professionally, so don’t try it at home. “New head bolts and the proper torque procedure are imperative,” warns our Ford tech.

The issue underscores the importance of changing the coolant in your bi-metal engine every two years, regardless of the make.

The anti-freeze may look a healthy bright green, but change it anyway your engine needs fresh additives to combat harmful acids.

Another technician suggested that if your hauling needs are not strenuous, the 3.0 L Windstar offers the benefit of an alliron engine — the block and head get along amicably.

Brake problems, a harsh shift from second gear into first and inoperative power windows have been reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US. The fact Ford

has upgraded the brake hardware on the second generation van suggests buyers of the ‘9598 models should pay particular attention to the brakes.

A fleet manager of a major car rental company characterized the reliability of the Windstar as “average,” but added that he was not aware of any chronic problems.

Then again, he disposes of the vans after only 25,000 km of use.

But like many of the owners and technicians we spoke to, he wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a good used-vehicle purchase.

One Ford technician told us about a service professional who researched the market carefully before deciding the Windstar was the best van for the money. And he worked for Toyota.

WE NEED YOUR FEEDBACK: We would like to know about your ownership experience on the following models. Please note the deadline dates.

Mazda 626 by May 20

Chevrolet Cavalier/Pontiac Sunfire: by June 17

Send your letters and comments to Second-hand, c/o Wheels section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6. Fax 416-865-3996

Email:toljagic@idirect.com

Mark Toljagic, a freelance Toronto writer, contributes Second-hand once a month.

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