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Aerostar moves Ford into the minivan market

Months behind schedule, the Ford Aerostar has arrived at last -- one more player in the minivan road rally for the motorists' hard-earned cash. Despite the delay, the car is well worth the wait. Aerostar is competing with the new General Motors Astro -- another rear-drive vehicle like the Aerostar; Chrysler's front-wheel-drive Caravan/Voyager; and the imports.

Unlike the Caravan/Voyager, however, the Aerostar manages to combine the flexibility and rider features of a station wagon with the toughness, cargo capacity, and towing capability of a truck.

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Aerostar's 119-inch wheelbase compares with 112 for the Chrysler product. Bumper-to-bumper length, at 174.9 inches, is an inch shorter than on the Caravan/Voyager, while the road-to-roof height, at 72.8 inches, compares with 64.2 inches for the Chrysler minivan.

Base engine of the Aerostar is a 2.3-liter, fuel-injected ``4,'' with Ford's 2.8-liter V-6 an option for those who want it.

The two minivans may not be after the same buyers, anyway. Unlike the Caravan/Voyager, the Aerostar also comes in hardworking commercial dress. The step-up from the road to the van floor is higher in the Ford product than in the Chrysler version.

Perhaps the Aerostar seems heavy because of the design and size of its components, such as the pillars, although it handles easily under highway stress.

With the optional V-6 beneath the hood, the test vehicle steps off fast and is quickly responsive to a driver's move of the steering wheel. Braking is straight-line and fast.

Indeed, the Ford Aerostar has a commanding presence and can seat up to seven people. The windshield-support pillars are massive when compared with a car. The B-pillars, to the left and right of the front seat, are so wide that they obscure the visibility of approaching cars on the side -- a definite minus, in my opinion.

Also, the window and door-lock buttons, situated on the left-side door, are awkward to reach. Instrumentation is clearly visible, however, and all vehicle controls are handy and easy to use.

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Aerostar mileage is much higher than I expected. In an early-morning commute on non-expressway roads at an average speed of 32.3 m.p.h., the trip m.p.g., according to the on-board computer, was 19.8.

The next morning the figures were 28.5 and 19, showing mainly the effect of traffic lights. In stop-and-go, city-type driving the fuel economy plunges to a low of 12 to 14 m.p.g.

On straight expressway driving, however, it may hit 23 m.p.g. or better, as it did on a trip to New York the other day. Not bad, given the Aerostar's curb weight of 2,860 pounds. Remember, the automatic-transmission test vehicle was equipped with a V-6, not the standard 4-cylinder engine.

To keep down the weight, Ford uses an aluminum drive shaft, which, according to Reynolds Metals Company, is the first of its kind for a high-volume vehicle such as the Aerostar.

Access to the engine, as with the Toyota minivan, is not the best on the road. In the Aerostar, you reach the front of the engine by raising an outside hatch. The back of the engine is reached through an inside hatch. The Toyota minivan (ugh!) has the engine beneath the driver's front seat. The Chrysler minivans, in contrast, are a friend of the engine mechanic.

For towing, the Ford van shines. At 4,900 pounds, the maximum towing capacity for the V-6-engined Aerostar is 21/2 times that of the Chrysler minivan.

Clearly, the competition is heating up with the new Ford and GM minivans on the road. Some industry observers see a potential light-van demand of up to 800,000 vehicles a year, but Ford's figure is in the 600,000-to-650,000 range.

Ford plans to introduce a 4-wheel-drive Aerostar within the next two years, although it has yet to make a decision on a front-drive minivan. GM has already said it will take the front-drive route.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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