The Ford Aerostar was Ford's first minivan, and was introduced as a 1986 model in summer 1985. The Aerostar was unique since it combined the trucklike rear-wheel drive and towing capacity of the Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari with car-like user-friendliness of the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager. The Aerostar is often referred to as a "midivan" along with the RWD GM vans, due to its being larger than Chrysler's minvans but smaller than a traditional full-size van. Like Chrysler's minivans, the Aerostar was exported to Europe in small numbers, which is why the rear license surround is sized for European number plates instead of American ones.
The Aerostar was dropped after the 1997 model year after being replaced by the Windstar in the 1995 model year and being sold alongside it for 1995-97. Until its 1997 cancellation, over 100,000 Aerostars were sold each year, outselling competition from GM every year after 1990, placing Ford in second place in minivan sales (at the time). The Aerostar was produced at Ford's St. Louis, Missouri assembly plant, which built the Ford Explorer, Mercury Mountaineer, and Lincoln Aviator. This assembly plant is now closed.
The Aerostar was Motor Trend magazine's Truck of the Year for 1990.
Unlike the front-wheel drive Chrysler minivans and their later clones, the Aerostar was designed as a rear-wheel drive vehicle. This compromised interior space somewhat (the interior floor was higher) but provided superior towing ability as well as increased traction when loaded.
The Aerostar differed from other minivans of its time because it was built on neither a car platform or a truck platform. The official designation for the Aerostar is VN1, which was also the first American Ford to get an alphanumeric platform designation (as opposed to "Fox" or "Panther") This design was developed because the designers in Ford's truck office were unfamiliar and uncomfortable with unibody construction, and essentially designed the frame rails into the Aerostar's unibody (this construction was also used on the Chevrolet/GMC G-Series vans, the second generation Jeep Cherokee), and today's Honda Ridgeline pickup. The aerodynamic sloped-nosed styling resembled the Ford Taurus introduced alongside it for 1986. An early commercial ad campaign compared the side profile of the Aerostar to that of the NASA Space Shuttle. For much of its later life, the Aerostar would be marketed as part of Ford's light-truck lineup.
Early models were available with Ford's 2.3 L Lima I4 engine, which at was underpowered. Available as an upgrade initially was the 2.8 L Cologne V6. Both of these engines were dropped after the 1987 model year. Starting with the 1988 model year, all Aerostars came with either the corporate 3.0 L Vulcan V6 found in the Taurus and Ranger, or (starting in 1990) a version of the Explorer/Ranger's 4.0 L Cologne V6. The 4.0 L Cologne quickly overtook the Vulcan in sales.
Since the Aerostar used truck parts (the brake rotors, axle bearings, wheels, etc. were all interchangeable with the Ford Ranger, Bronco II, and Explorer), essentially any interchangeable truck option for power and suspension was available. Many Aerostar owners upgraded to 15- or 16-inch wheels from an Explorer or Ranger.
One noted difference is that the Aerostar had a 3-link coil spring rear suspension with a live axle, similar to the Ford Crown Victoria and Fox-body Mustang. Two different 5-speed manual transmissions were used, both of which were shared with other Ford and Mazda truck products. The earlier unit used from 1985-1987 is the Toyo-Kogyo (Mazda) transmission known as the TK-5. This unit was designed and built by Toyo-Kogyo. The later transmission, used from 1988-95 is the Mazda M5OD-R1. It was designed by Ford, but built by Mazda and shares a similarity to (but not interchangeability with) the Ford/Mazda M5OD-R2 transmission used in the fullsize Ford F-series and Ford Bronco trucks.
The All-Wheel Drive (E-4WD) Aerostar
Starting in 1990 and on through 1997, Ford offered an electronically controlled all-wheel drive option on XLT and Eddie Bauer models. This was a different system than other four-wheel-drive Ford vehicles in that the system engaged when it detected rear wheel spin, powering the front wheels automatically with no driver input required. Unlike most four-wheel-drive vehicles the system used on the Aerostar is more precisely described as "All Wheel Drive". It is distinctly different from traditional four-wheel-drive systems and other modern-day versions. The difference is that the Aerostar's unique Dana TC28 transfer case employs a true center differential, though this center-differential is regulated by an electronically controlled electro-magnetic clutch, this means that all four wheels are essentially powered at all times.
All four-wheel-drive (called "E4WD" by Ford, standing for Electronic 4 Wheel Drive) Aerostars used the 4.0 L Cologne V6 rated at . The Aerostar was available with either a 5-speed manual (which was discontinued in 1995) or the 4-speed A4LD automatic. For 1996, both the 4-speed 4R44E (3.0 Engine) and 4-speed automatic 4R55E (4.0 engine) transmissions became available, replacing the A4LD. For 1997 the 5R55E was standard for the 4.0 engine.
First generation (1986-1988)
The Ford Aerostar is introduced in a single body style with a base-model cargo van, XL base-model wagon, and XLT deluxe-trim wagon.
1987 is largely carryover.
1988 was a year dedicated to simplifying. Mechanically, the 4-cylinder engine is dropped and the Cologne V6 is replaced with the 3.0L V6 shared with the Taurus for both power and fuel economy gains. Trim is simplified by dropping 2-tone paint from the XLT model and changing exterior trim (see below).
- Since all Aerostars now have the Vulcan V6, the V6 logo next to the front turn signals is removed.
- The Aerostar script is moved from both front fenders to the left side of the rear hatch; the box beneath it showing the trim level changes from a red background to a gray one.
On the upper end, the Eddie Bauer model is introduced as an upscale model. It shares most of its features with XLT models (most options being standard equipment), but with unique "outdoors" trim. Two-tone paint schemes are used, but instead of the side panels being the accent, the rocker panels and wheel well trim are painted tan as the accent. 14" aluminum wheels are standard on the Eddie Bauer, but are available on XLT wagons as an option.
- Inside, 2nd-row "quad" bucket seats are now an option on Eddie Bauer and XLT trim.
Generation 1.5 (1989-91)
Outside, the exterior receives a minor facelift to update its appearance. The grille changes from a chrome egg-crate style to a dark gray style with 3 holes.
- New wheelcovers are introduced to differentiate the Aerostar's wheels from those on the Ranger/Bronco II. One style is shared with the Tempo, while the other (5 triangular holes, with slotted spokes) is unique to the Aerostar.
- The extended length Aerostar is introduced for both van and wagon body styles. This un-named version is 14" longer, mostly behind the 3rd seat area.
This is the year the Aerostar overtook the Astro and Safari twins in sales to move from 3rd to 2nd behind Chrysler. The changes of this year are limited primarily to under the hood. The Cologne engine option returns in a 4.0L version. Additionally, E-4WD (Electronic 4-Wheel Drive) all-wheel drive becomes an option; this is the first AWD van by an American automaker. The 4.0L engine is a mandatory option. Aerostar is named Motor Trend
's Truck Of The Year
1991 is largely carryover.
Second generation (1992-97)
The Aerostar is treated to a minor facelift outside, with changes inside stemming from the addition of a driver airbag.
Although no sheetmetal was changed, the Aerostar now had a much different look up front (certainly when compared to the 1986 model). To live up to the "aero" part of its name, the old-style sealed-beam headlights were replaced with the flush-lens composite type being integrated into all Ford cars and trucks. The front turn signal lenses changed from all-amber to mostly clear in color to match the headlights. The grille insert was changed yet again, although this time, the Ford logo was moved from the center to the top third of the grille. This was done to match the similarly-redesigned Econoline and the then-new Explorer. The Aerostar's distinctive A-pillar windows were blacked out further to look slightly smaller.
- Two-tone paint was re-introduced as an option on XLT wagons, but instead of the Eddie Bauer tan, silver was the typical accent color.
- Bumpers gained a monochromatic appearance on 2-tone vans, but still were gray on single-color vans. Non-metallic wheel covers were introduced.
In response to safety trends, Ford introduced a driver-side SRS airbag for 1992. With this change, Ford took the opportunity to make somewhat major changes to the gauge panel, climate controls, and switched other controls to parts common to other Ford vehicles (such as the wipers and lights). The gear selector for the automatic moved from the floor to the steering column, yet the handbrake remained (a quirk common to all Ford minivans). The layout for the radio stayed the same, but the faceplate was now shared with the Taurus instead of the Ranger.
- Eddie Bauer models received the option of leather seating surfaces.
- 1993 introduces the option of integrated child seats.
- 1994 adds a CHMSL (center brake light) to the rear hatch.
- 1995 Body-color bumpers become available to wagons without 2-tone paint.
- 1996 Is carryover and is the final year for non-XLT models.
For a variety of reasons, 1997 is the final model year for the Aerostar. Aside from cargo vans, the only version of the wagon is now the XLT. As such, it is both available as a stripped model and as a deluxe model. The 4.0L V6 gets paired with a 5-speed automatic transmission; this is a first for minivans.
- On the taillights, the amber turn indicators are replaced with red ones.
- The unique taillights are often a popular choice of pre-1997 Aerostar owners who customize their vehicles.
- Retrofitting these to a pre-1997 Aerostar requires drilling an extra hole inside for the turn signal indicator.
- Seven-hole 14x6" wheels (1" wider than normal) are introduced as a final-year option.
Aerostar models and trim levels
Aerostar Cargo Van (1986-97)
The cargo version of the Aerostar did not sell as well as the wagon, as the Aerostar's in-between size worked against it in comparison to the GM Astro/Safari twins. The van differed from the wagon primarily with the rear door; the van had traditional double doors as opposed to the wagon's rear hatch. As the cargo van was not exported, the license-plate opening was American-sized instead of the wagon's European-sized one. Despite the easier to drive size and better driver ergonomics, the Aerostar Van did not catch on as a base for conversion vans either. The Ford Transit Connect could be viewed as the most direct replacement of the Aerostar cargo van.
As far as Aerostar wagons go, the XL was the base model. It also was the most popular model for most of the Aerostar's life. Most XLT standard features were options on the XL, so not all XLs were stripper models. However, some options like E4WD, quad seats, and rear climate control were still unavailable on any XL. The only way to get an XL with the 4.0L V6 was with the extended-length model.
The XLT was the "loaded" model of the Aerostar lineup and eventually overtook the more affordable XL model in sales. Features like power windows, power mirrors(2 sizes unique to the Aerostar), and power locks were standard along with standard privacy glass, rear wiper and defogger, an automatic transmission and ABS (rear-wheel only, like on other small Ford trucks). Other features included rear-seat audio controls (an off switch for the rear speakers and dual headphone jacks) and a 6-speaker stereo with an optional 7-band equalizer that went in the storage cubby under the ashtray. The few extra-cost options included quad seats, a fold-down rear bench (after mid-1989), a digital dashboard with a tachometer, an overhead trip computer with an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a fold-down armrest with cupholders in the rear bench (the only way to get cupholders in an Aerostar before 1992). While cupholders were an option (the armrest in the rear bench) before 1992, the XLT Aerostar came with 6 ashtrays and 2 cigar lighters.
Eddie Bauer (1988-96)
The Aerostar was one of the first Fords (and so far, the only van) to get an Eddie Bauer trim level. It combined the options and features of the XLT with two-tone exterior paint (tan with a few select contrasting color choices) and a tan interior (cloth standard, with leather as an option). One usually overlooked feature of the Eddie Bauer package is that the middle and rear bench seats would fold out flat converting the two bench seats into a bed, though some Eddie Bauer Aerostars were equipped with a pair of bucket seats instead of the middle bench seat.
In 1989, to counter Chrysler's "Grand" vans, Ford added roughly 14" behind the 3rd seat to create an extended-length model, which never received a separate model designation. The 119" wheelbase was kept the same, as it was already longer than that of a Lincoln Town Car. With the extra cargo space, this version quickly overtook the standard length in sales. As this version weighed over 2 tons, the 4.0L V6 was either standard (XLT, Eddie Bauer, and all 4WD vans) or a popular option (XL trim).
The Sport option package was available for any (usually)XL or XLT model. It consisted of 2-tone paint (usually bright silver on the bottom, with some other bright color), a front air dam, running boards with an "AEROSTAR" logo, and "Sport" badging. XL models had full wheel covers; XLT models had alloy wheels shared with other XLT and Eddie Bauer wagons. However, this was an aesthetic upgrade only; the 140-hp Vulcan V6 was still under the hood of XL models with this option.
A digital instrument panel with full instruments was optional on all Aerostar wagons, but primarily offered on XLT and Eddie Bauer models. The analog panel had the same instruments as the digital one, but without a tachometer. 1992 changed all odometers to digital numbers.
- The Aerostar's optional electronic digital odometer, available 1986-91, would roll over to after it registered (example pic) This oddity continued for several years, but after 1992 model year, this anomaly had been corrected. Since the kilometer output would also roll over at the 200,000.0 mark, one needed to compare the two outputs using a little math to determine the true mileage on the odometer.
All Eddie Bauer and XLT Aerostars (and the majority of XL-trim as well) had air conditioning as standard. Higher-trim models also had rear A/C as an option after 1988. The 2nd-row windows on the Aerostar slid open, in a way similar to the VW Vanagon.
When the floor shifter for the automatic transmission was deleted for 1992, an optional floor console was relocated in its place. It offered 2 small cupholders and a coin holder (previously in the glovebox). An overhead trip computer didn't have the compass or thermometer of Chrysler models, but it calculated trip mileage (in addition to the trip odometer), fuel economy (average and instant), distance to empty, as well as average speed. Its two map lights were in addition to the 2 already attached to the XLT's dome light. Another quirk in early Aerostars is the six ashtrays and 2 cigar lighters; obviously, the interior was designed with a smoker in mind.
Phase-out and decline
Ford began to phase out the Aerostar in 1995. The Windstar was its de facto replacement, although Ford marketed it to a different audience (Ford marketed the Aerostar as a truck; the Windstar was considered a car). The Aerostar was sold until March 17
, after overlapping with the Windstar for 3 model years.
By the 1989 model year, the Aerostar overtook GM in sales to claim the #2 spot in the minivan sales race. However, Chrysler's idea of a minivan had such influence that newer designs (the GM APV vans, the Mercury Villager
, and even the all copied its front-wheel drive unibody layout. Even Volkswagen adopted it with the EuroVan. Ford took note of this and planned for a 1994 introduction of the 1995 Windstar. Like the Aerostar was a mechanical twin of Ford's light-truck family, the Windstar was mechanically similar to the upcoming 1996 Ford Taurus. The original plan was to discontinue the Aerostar after the 1994 model year. When word of this plan became public, the Ford Motor Company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan
was bombarded with letters from the public and dealerships, insisting that the Aerostar continue production. Ford relented and announced that both the Aerostar and Windstar would be sold together for the time being, due to popular demand. Also, that would give Ford Motor Company 3 different minivans for 2 nameplates (Aerostar, Windstar, Villager) compared to Chrysler Corporation's 1 minivan for 3 nameplates (Voyager/Caravan/Town and Country).
Rise of the SUV segment
When the Aerostar was introduced in 1986, the only four-door compact SUV was AMC's Jeep Cherokee
. The 1991 replacement of the Bronco II with the Explorer proved successful, and Ford soon had the best-selling compact SUV in America. By the time the Windstar was introduced, the image of minivans was far less trendy than that of an SUV, so many buyers traded in their minivans to purchase SUVs — similar to the shift from full-size wagons to minivans. The Explorer replaced the Aerostar like how the Aerostar replaced the Country Squire a decade earlier.
The Aerostar and Explorer were both manufactured in the now-closed St. Louis, Missouri facility. As the 1990s progressed, this posed a problem for Ford as every Aerostar made was now becoming a missed opportunity for Ford to sell an Explorer. Ford announced in 1996 that the 1997 model year would be the final year. However, the outcry over the cancellation was not as significant as it was in 1994 because minivans in general were starting to decline in popularity.
1998 crash standards
With the Windstar, Ford had started to use safety as a way to market minivans to potential buyers. However, this would prove a major problem for the Aerostar. Although the Aerostar had offered a driver-side airbag since 1992, Ford was faced with the challenge of integrating dual airbags if it wanted to sell an Aerostar in 1998. The majority of the unibody would have needed a ground-up redesign to pass new crash standards; potential sales could not justify that cost, as Ford was already designing a new generation Windstar to make up for the omission of dual sliding doors.
The legacy of the Aerostar
Like Ford's other groundbreaking 1986 introduction, the Aerostar would go on to influence many of its competitors' designs, even today.
- The Aerostar was the first widely-available minivan to offer all-wheel drive, predicting today's crossovers.
- Introduced in 1990 model year.
- The Aerostar was the first minivan to offer 6-cylinder engines exclusively.
- The "Lima" 4-cylinder was dropped after the 1987 model year.
- The Aerostar Eddie Bauer was the first upscale minivan.
- Introduced in 1988 model year; the Chrysler Town and Country became a minivan in the 1990 model year.
- The Aerostar's 2nd-row wide-opening windows were unique among American minivans.
- The 1997 Aerostar's 5R55E transmission was the first 5-speed automatic transmission in a minivan.