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AEROSTAR SHINES AMONG MINIVANS

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In an era when automakers are boasting about the carlike characteristics of their minivans and even sport utility vehicles, Ford's Aerostar is a breath of fresh air.

The roomy Ford people mover makes no pretense about being a Mercedes-Benz stuck in a van body. It doesn't mind being a van and it shows.With its aquiline visage, the Aerostar is an impressive looking vehicle. And inside, the Aerostar is as comfortable as home and darn near a spacious.

It will never rival a Mercedes or a Lincoln in terms of a smooth ride. Its feel is distinctly trucklike, but the Aerostar handles quite well.

The all-wheel-drive edition provided for a weeklong test was a joy on the road under all kinds of conditions. It slogged through rain and mud without any problems and never faltered when asked for power.

The 4.0-liter V6, generating 135 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 160 foot pounds of torque at 2,800 rpm, provided plenty of pep.

The 3,589-pound van merged smartly into expressway traffic even when acceleration space was at a premium and showed more than enough vigor to get safely around slow-moving traffic on two-lane roads.

Overall, the Aerostar displayed excellent road manners, clinging to the pavement impressively even in a wind-driven rainstorm. And it withstood buffeting from both the wind and truck backdrafts with no sign of sway.

The intrepid Aerostar maneuvered through tight turns on rain-soaked country roads without a hint of pitch or roll, and steering was virtually effortless. Even traversing a pothole-scarred back road, the Aerostar remained in perfect control and balance - though driver and passenger got a bit of a shaking.

But the velour captain's chairs were soft and helped absorb the bumps.

And while the ride was trucklike, the noise level in the Aerostar was not. I found it surprisingly quiet at highway speed and on rough roads.

There is nothing trucklike about the interior of the Aerostar. It is both spacious and comfortable. The seats are soft but supportive, the standard stereo system delivers good sound, and there is plenty of legroom, headroom, hiproom and shoulder room for all.

The only problem is that the Aerostar sits fairly high. That, of course, means a great view of the road. It's fine for tall people, but for people with shorter statures, getting into the Aerostar takes a bit of climbing.

The all-wheel-drive Eddie Bauer edition provided for the test drive included just about everything anyone could imagine.

High-capacity air conditioning, along with power steering, power-assisted anti-lock brakes, automatic transmission, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, rear window washer and rear defroster, full carpeting, AM-FM stereo with cassette player and driver's side air bag are all included in the $25,144 base price.

Optional equipment on the test van included floor-console, power windows and door locks and a special limited slip axle. The final price, with the $535 destination charge factored in, came to $26,153.

And gas mileage was fairly good, considering the Aerostar is full-time four-wheel drive. It has an EPA fuel economy rating of 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, but I averaged nearly 19 mpg in more than 350 miles of driving under a wide variety of conditions during the weeklong test. And it averaged a little more than 23 mpg in one nearly 100-mile stretch of all-highway driving.