COAL: 2003 Ford Windstar SEL – A Hint Of Luxury; More Than A Hint Of Issues

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I grew tired of our aging Ford Aerostar XLT and began searching for a replacement in earnest during the summer of 2005. For practical purposes it had to be a minivan again. I perused the local library, the internet, interviewed current users and sales people to inform myself. I set my requirements which included 2nd row captain seats for a demilitarized zone between the siblings and a DVD player.

The process of elimination went about like this: Chrysler products had too many transmission failures. I took a Toyota Sienna for a spin. I did not like the interior color, a very cold blue. It felt sterile and the price was rather high. I took a Pontiac transport for a spin and had trouble finding a comfortable seating position. I also was keenly aware of the intake manifold gasket issue. The repairs were running at $1100. They also told me that there was a way of tipping the engine forward to get access to the rear spark plugs etc. I did not like that at all.

The local Ford dealer had a near new 2006 Mercury Monterrey, a 2003 Ford Windstar and a 2003 Mazda MPV on the lot. I looked at those after hours and took my boys there as well. They did not like the Mazda which left the Monterrey and Windstar. They were a bit firmer than the others and I liked that. I preferred the dash layout of the Windstar over the Monterrey. The Monterrey had the larger engine, stow-away rear bench and obstacle warning as novelties. However I found the Windstar’s interior more to my liking.

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I swung by at Jeff’s place. He was the guy who sold me the Mazda 323 back in ’86 and he worked now at a high quality used car dealership. I wanted to see if I could give him my business but he had no Windstar. We had a good conversation and we found the price difference between the big 3 and Toyota, Honda was about $5000.00. Jeff confirmed that the Chrysler minivans will be hit or miss in terms of the transmission, the GM minivans have the gasket issue, with the Ford you’ll have funky electricals and Toyota and Honda you’ll have none of that. But $5000 extra? He called it the “stupid money”.

I went back to the Ford dealer to see what he would offer. $17,999.00 for the Windstar and $1000 trade in for the Aerostar. I was close to pulling the trigger but not quite there yet. This week’s free advertisement newspaper came in and of course I looked at the Ford dealer’s listing. There was the very Windstar advertised for $16,999.00. I went back the next day to see what’s up with that. It was an error but they would honor the ad. Also about the Aerostar: if it was worth a grand last week it is worth a grand this week. That made the negotiations easy and I signed on the dotted line.

The kids liked it right away. The dual power sliding doors where cool. They had their own seats and they reclined! There was a cup holder on the side of each seat to pull out! There was a drop down DVD screen on the ceiling! – Wait a minute! That’s not a DVD player in the center console, that’s a VHS tape player!!!! Darn it, I didn’t check, I just assumed it was a DVD player. OK. So we will play tapes.

People are nice here in Iowa, so I got a bunch of compliments. “Nice Minivan!” “I like the color!” and so on. Have to admit, the Windstar was one of the better looking minivans out there. It was well proportioned and the dark blue with tan interior was a nice color combination. It was a real upgrade to the Aerostar, not just perceived. I appreciated the info center, tilt wheel, adjustable pedals, power seats, lumbar adjustment, 6 CD changer, lots of speakers, effective front and rear HVAC. The center stack was slightly angled towards the driver like in BMW cars. “You like that, don’t you, Papa” the younger boy said. The headlights were very good as well. Another nice touch were the grocery bag hooks on the back of the third row bench. It had leather seats that felt like plastic, power sliding doors, privacy glass, 4 wheel ABS and 5 star safety rating.

Spring Break in 2006 we spent in Branson, MO. From there we made an excursion to Little Rock, AR through the Ozarks. It’s beautiful country and reminiscent of the middle mountains of Germany. We stopped at the Mystic Cavern then continued South on the oldest road of the region, Arkansas Highway 7. One of my boys felt the call of nature. I hoped to find a bathroom, but nothing came up. With no shoulder it wasn’t easy to stop somewhere safely either. But past a house there seemed to be an opportunity. I stopped and the boy went towards the trees when a bunch of dogs came charging and barking. He ran back to the van and jumped on the hood. You look at the sloping hood of a Windstar and you wonder how he could manage to stay up on it. A guy with a shotgun in hand came and called back the dogs. The boy got in the van, business unfinished, and we took off. Just for history’s sake: that used to be KluKuxKlan country.

A few miles later we came to a rest stop. Not just any rest stop. A historic rest stop brought about by the tenacious members of the Rotary Ann of Russelsville. They did not like the indignation of defining the back sides of trees (How do you tell the back of a tree?-It’s where the paper is at.) and thus a rest area was built. Here we all found our relief, unencumbered by dogs and shot gun.

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The youngster’s team (blue jersey) was the first Ames Soccer Club team to win a tournament.

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In 2009 Ames High Little Cyclones (white jersey) were runner up in the State Tournament, the highest placement ever for our High School.

We used it for soccer trips and Boy Scout trips every school year, yearly trips to the folks in North Carolina, and threw in a few family vacations. That’s exactly what minivans are designed for. Some years I did 20000 miles. That meant about 1000 gallons of fuel. I timed the purchase perfectly with the rise in gas prices. The first time I filled up the gas station clerk said: “$63.00. Are you sure you like your van?” Two years later I had my most expensive fill-up ever: $99.00 with prices hitting $3.99 per gal.

Spring break 2008 we went on a tour of historic sites of the civil rights strive. It included Atlanta, GA to visit a friend and her sons who used to live in Ames, IA. The city just had experienced a rare tornado with glass sheets falling off the facade of a high-rise, trees uprooted and other damage. Of course we visited the Dr. Martin Luther King historic site. And we visited the campus of Spelman and Morehouse colleges.

I was already tiring of driving minivans, maybe more so of the never ending miles-gobbling family obligations that I associate with it. For vacations like these I demanded to have one “me-day”, when I can do what I want without having to accommodate anybody.

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The “Bimmerguy” in Woodstock, GA let me take these 3 cars for a spin. Thanks, Sam!

Before going to Atlanta I did some window shopping, or better: computer screen shopping, for a car that I would really like. On Craigslist I found a used car dealer in Woodstock who called himself the “Bimmerguy”. I paid him a visit, just to talk and day dream. He was quite a talker but nice too. He offered me to take three cars for a spin. The first was a 328 Touring. I really appreciated it as very comfortable, fitting-like-a-glove family car. Nothing outrageous but sovereign. Next was a 3 series cabriolet that showed all the fun and downsides of rag tops: some body flex, some rattling and noise combined with top-down fun. The third car was a 330 CSI, the biggest engine that would fit under the hood of the smallest and lightest coupe body. Wow! That car was the fastest I ever had my hands on. Most impressive was the steering. You can call it telepathic. For a few minutes these put me out of my “automotive misery” as Sam called it.

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And one more thing: when I traced back our travels on Google I found a capture of our Windstar parked in the driveway at our friend’s house.

Medicine Bow Range

Medicine Bow Range, Wyoming

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Spruce Mountain Fire tower.

In summer of 2008 the boy scout troop held their high adventure in the Medicine Bow Range of Wyoming. The campsite was at Rob Roy Reservoir. Our Scoutmaster managed to get everyone a night in the Spruce Mountain Look-out on top of the hill. It is easier to get a room in the Ritz of Paris, France than to get a night in this fire tower. It was an unbelievable experience. This area has one of the darkest night skies left in the USA. The stars were so clear you think you watch a Walt Disney animation.

Here in the deep forest the minivan was put to the test. We took the gravel roads and “improved dirt roads” at 40 mph and faster. The SUV’s were in their element, the Minivans (Windstar and a Honda Odyssey) were at their limits. We had to ask the the SUV drivers to slow down for us. I had Adam and his sons in our van with my two boys. He owned a Plymouth Voyager and while comparing notes I asked him what size engine he thought the Windstar may have. “Three liters” he said. “Three Point Eight” I replied. And he said: “That’s a bad-ass minivan then!” We both broke out in laughter. What an oxymoron.

We were speeding along the gravel roads, our vehicles separated by about 100 yards and all of the sudden everyone yelled: bear! It was like another Walt Disney picture with the black bear bumbling across the road and disappearing in the bushes. We saw moose, mule deer, hummingbirds and forests that were ravaged by the bark beetle.

Yogi at McFarland Park

Yogi

Something else happened in ’08. My wife bought our younger son a puppy. Without asking me if I agree, of course.

On a trip to Florida one of my new ANCO wiper blades fell apart. I found some wire twist floating around in the van and jury-rigged it for the time being. At home I fixed a broken link by drilling a hole through the all-plastic design and stuck a piece of a bicycle spoke through.

In 2009 on a summer trip to North Carolina the water pump started chirping. I didn’t want to push my luck and decided to get it fixed at a Firestone place. This experience made me avoid Firestone places from then on. Not only did they take $600.00 for the fix which included $250 for a re-manufactured pump, they also recommended a $500 rear brake job that I politely declined.

One year we made our trip to NC during the Christmas season. We only had one week and I felt all we accomplished was driving there, killing a deer and driving back. The day before returning I was going on Highway 11 S towards Kinston, NC and in a right hand curve there was a deer standing in the middle of the our double lane. There was a semi trailer behind me. I pulled into the right lane in order to pass behind the tail of the animal. In the very last moment the deer turned around and was hit with the left corner of the van.

Don’t say that deer are incalculable. They have a very strong herding instinct. Before going into open territory such as a meadow or a road they will send out an vanguard to check things out. If something is not right they will rejoin the herd and warn them. When you see a deer in the road you know they are likely to return to the herd. You just don’t know on which side of the road that herd is hiding. The hit resulted in a crack in the bumper cover and hair caught in it. The corner light was broken too. I told one of my sons about it. Early next morning we took the same road and there was the deer apparently flattened by the semitrailer. “Nice deer, Papa!” my son remarked.

Until then (110,000 miles in 2009) it was nothing but oil changes and transmission service and the following annoyances: The CD player was spitting out perfectly fine CD’s and displayed the message: bad disk. I cleaned it once and that helped for a short time, then never worked right again. It was aggravating.

The lumbar adjustment leaked air.

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Main suspect for the flickering dome lights: door ajar micro switch

The dome lights started flickering. There are 8 micro switches in the 5 doors and at least one of them malfunctioned. But which one? I resorted to turning the dome light off on the dimmer switch and turned them on only when I needed them.

The VHS player only worked in certain conditions. You could not use it in the winter before the cabin was reasonably warm. A few years later it did not work at all.

These were bells and whistles that don’t impede the core function, but I paid for them and I hate paying for things that don’t work.

Sometimes the power sliding doors did not completely close. They reversed and opened again. I suppose they should do that so no little kids’ fingers get caught in the door frame. The glitch was caused by dried up goo in the bottom rail of the doors. I used WD40 to clean the old grease and gunk off and applied fresh silicone grease to the wheel. I had to do this about once a year and it worked like a charm then.

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The new green grommets are oil proof, I hope.

Ford Winstar manifold gaskets and egr ports

While we are there let’s clean the EGR ports and the gasket surfaces.

More important things came up: In the winter of 2009 I had trouble during the warm up time. The idle was loping and when in gear waiting for the green light the van was bucking. I had to put it in neutral and let the idle yo-yo as it liked. There were no problems when the engine was warm or in summer. Next Fall (2010) the problem returned. I took the upper intake manifold off and replaced the gaskets and the grommets of the isolator bolts. They were drenched in oil from the PCV system and hardened and cracked which caused vacuum leaks. It took me one afternoon to complete this job and cost me about $45 in parts. It saved me about $800.00.

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This picture is not of my van. Even though the reinforcements were mounted this rear axle broke into two pieces. Apparently no anti-corrosion material was applied here.

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Many Windstars had subframe rust. Mine was not nearly that bad.

I had two safety recalls. The first one was for the rear axle. They had the nasty attitude of corroding from the inside out and breaking into two pieces. They did not find corrosion on mine. The other one was for corrosion at the sub frame. There was minor corrosion on mine. They cleaned it off, applied some anti-corrosion goo and clamped braces over the risky parts. They did that too on the rear axle. That was about as confidence inspiring as crossing fingers. At least one family man was killed when the corroded rear axle broke and he crashed into a building.

The ABS warning light came on mostly on warm days. Through the internet I learned that the ABS module had developed a crack in the circuit board because a large heat sink was glued to it. The different expansion rates caused the board to crack. On a photo I saw the name “Siemens” emblazoned on it. That’s probably the only piece of German engineering in the whole van. Of course it had to fail and be too costly to replace with one that too will fail. Funny enough, when the weather was cold and ABS was really helpful it worked.

Eventually the rear brakes needed new drums and shoes. I got them from O’Reilly’s. After a few heat cycles the drums were out of round and I had to have them turned. About a year later I felt vibration at the rear wheels. When I took Nr. 1 son to Iowa Central Community College he followed me in his car and noticed that the right rear wheel was bobbling badly up and down. I kept it below 50 mph. The mechanics found out the drum was turned off center. O’Reilly’s did a bum job on this one. I never understood why it took so long for the vibration to develop.

Then I replaced the front struts in 2011. I trusted the Raybestos brand and I shouldn’t have. They were Chinese crap. Two years and 20,000 miles later one of them broke apart with a big bang while going over a local railroad crossing. Monroe Sens-A-track or bust!

The alternator went bad. For more than a year the info display dimmed, then brightened up with no apparent pattern. Now I was stranded with the battery dead. I was able to pull into a parking lot. I called a friend and after putting in a re-manufactured unit by O’Reilly’s everything worked just fine including the info display.

The crank position sensor malfunctioned. I cleaned it and the tone wheel. No cost.

There was a problem with the instrument cluster. The gauges went haywire. The needles danced all over the place. That’s what stepper motors do when the voltage to them gets unsteady. The tachometer needle went beyond the range and pointed down into the the gear range indicator. When I put it into P the needle got bent. I spent a Sunday afternoon pulling the instrument, taking it apart, straighten the needle and putting it back together. Pulling the unit apart cleaned the contact surfaces on the pins. That fixed the instruments but now some back lights went dark. I had to pull the cluster a second time to replace all the bulbs. Jeff’s predictions came true: the Windstar came with funky electricals.

The tin worm was attacking the rear wheel wells and ate a hole to the right sliding door track. The bottom edge of the hatch was rusty too.

I also replaced or had replaced the coil packs, inner tie rod ends, sway bar links, blend door actuator (two times) and the battery.

This engine is equipped with electrical Variable Intake Runner Controls. The actuator arms carry small plastic bushings at the linkage joints. They get brittle over time, break and get lost. It prevents the IMRC from proper operation. You hardly notice this. I happened to see an arm that was loose and bent. I fixed it with a used IMRC controller and new bushings. After that I noticed the engine ran smoother at low rpm and delivered a bit more torque as well. The transmission shifted down later than before. Throttle response was better and driving was more enjoyable.

A transmission cooler line leaked and was replaced. I never had problems with the transmission itself. I had the improved version AX4N and had the fluid changes done in time . I made sure they put Mercon V equivalents in it. In this case the odds played out for me.

By and large the van fulfilled my expectations. It served us for 9 years and from 53,000 miles to 172,000 miles. The disappointments were that the goodies failed early. Some of those five safety rating stars turned into Black Holes: It is unforgivable that the ABS controller failed at all and that rust turned into a safety issue. The killer though was the depreciation that goes along with a fairly high purchase price. Depreciation and maintenance came to $209 per month. This does not include insurance, registration and fuel. I paid for it with cash that came from a cash out refinancing of our house. Therefore I did not include a finance charge in my calculation. Maybe the $5000 extra for a Sienna or Odyssey wasn’t stupid money after all.

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Aerial picture of Omaha , Ne.

Once the boys vacated the nest I was almost always alone in the 7 seater. It just didn’t make sense anymore. And after 19 years of minivan I was longing for a car. Mr. and Mrs. W made one last trip to Omaha, NE in 2014 with our bad-ass minivan, a 2003 Ford Windstar SEL. It included a visit of the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. Soon after we sold the van for a very favorable price to a family here in town. They are still using it two years later and made at least one long trip out of state. I hope for them the Ford band aids hold the axle and subframe together for a few more years.