TBT: This ‘Next-Generation Minivan’ Helped Solidify Ford’s Position as Safety Leader

Mar 28, 2024

The 1980s might be remembered as the heyday for minivans, but the segment was still growing in the early- to mid-’90s as Ford introduced the “next-generation minivan,” which took aim at the market leader.

The minivan segment had just surpassed one million units sold for the first time in 1993, as Ford announced the introduction of the Ford Windstar. Its 1994 debut came as the company continued to claw away market share from competitors with the Ford Aerostar and Mercury Villager, which had both reached new sales highs in the months prior to Windstar’s launch. 

Back then, former Ford of Canada President Jim O’Connor had a message for the rest of the field, including the segment leader, during a Job One ceremony at Ford’s Oakville Assembly Plant in Ontario, Canada, where the Windstar was built:

“Look out Toyota, Mazda, Volkswagen, and General Motors,” he said. “But, most of all, look out Chrysler, because here comes Windstar.”

Longer and wider than the segment leader, Windstar was car-like in its ride, handling, comfort and quietness, but still offered the space, flexibility, and utility customers were expecting in their family hauler. Its 3.8-liter V6 and four-speed transmission were based on the powertrains of the Lincoln Continental of that era, giving Windstar more power and torque than previous minivans.

The minivan was the fifth of 14 new products Ford was launching in a 24-month period. The company invested $1 billion in retooling the plant in preparation for the launch of the new minivan in January 1994. The vehicle would be built in Oakville and exported for sale to more than 30 other countries around the world. The one millionth Windstar was assembled in 1998, after employees at the plant reached record production of more than 292,000 Windstar vans in 1997.

Setting the standard for safety

Advertising for Windstar leaned heavily on the minivan’s five-star crash test rating and its more than 40 standard safety features, which included standard dual airbags and four-wheel anti-lock brakes. The safety leadership led Ford to bill Windstar as the “minivan of choice for families who rate protection equal in importance to comfort and convenience.”

Other advantages of the Windstar were touted in a brochure titled, “The ’95 Ford Windstar and its 95 Advantages over Dodge Grand Caravan.” Some of those benefits included better aerodynamics, as well as better ride and handling. 

The Windstar was completely redesigned for the 1999 model year. In addition to a new appearance inside and out, it also now included a second sliding door, this time on the driver’s side. Input from a group of more than 30 women from the product development team who lent their experience as mothers also helped shape the second-generation Windstar. Their feedback was weighed in several areas of engineering including safety, ergonomics, electrical and fuel systems, product design engineering and climate control. As the vehicle was being developed, the women’s families were invited to test drive the minivan. Their feedback led to features such as Sleeping Baby Lights and personal audio systems for back-seat passengers.

In 2004, Windstar was rebranded as Freestar and gained a Mercury variant, the Monterey, which continued Ford’s legacy of safety leadership in the minivan segment. But the explosion of crossover vehicles led Ford to replace Freestar with the Freestyle, a three-row, seven-passenger vehicle (which later became known as the Taurus X) in 2007 as CUV sales surpassed even SUVs.

While the Windstar’s production run didn’t prove to be long, the minivan helped Ford advance its reputation for safety and listening to its customers.

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