GLEN ARBOR, MI — Ford Motor Co.'s '04 minivans are to the auto market what meatloaf is to American cuisine.

A safe choice. A source of comfort. And painfully familiar.

Sameness is the greatest strength of the new Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey. It also is their greatest weakness.

Few OEMs would turn up their nose at building a next-generation vehicle based on a product as solid as the Ford Windstar. It redefined crashworthiness for a segment that places a premium on safety. So give Ford its due for sticking with a winning recipe.

But it never hurts to try something new — like sheetmetal. Only a minivan enthusiast would know the new Freestar from the old. Monterey is Mercury's replacement for the smaller, discontinued Villager.

Expect Freestar and its platform-mate, Monterey, to earn quadruple 5-star crash-test ratings from regulators, the auto maker says. Credit a new subframe, a MacPherson-strut front suspension with energy-absorbing “reverse L” control arm design, and segment-exclusive availability of side-curtain airbags that cover all three rows of seating.

Ford joins the growing fold of auto makers now offering hide-away third-row seating. Like the Mazda MPV, Freestar and Monterey can accommodate tailgaters with seating that reverses to face outward.

The fold-flat third-row is a packaging miracle because, clustered around Freestar's solid rear axle are the seat well, fuel tank and spare tire. Some minivans and SUVs achieve this feat by replacing the solid axle with a very pricey independent rear suspension.

For all its advantages, the truck-like Windstar never approached the agility and plushness of the segment-leading Chrysler Group products. But Freestar and Monterey close the gap.

The new vans feature precise steering with steady but subtle feedback that contrasts — favorably, perhaps — with the lightness exhibited by the Toyota Sienna. And complementing the new front suspension is a refinement to the rear-axle design that contributes to predictable tracking.

Meanwhile, noise, vibration and harshness levels in Freestar and Monterey are arguably unsurpassed in the minivan market. Improved body sealing accounts for a 10% reduction in wind noise, Ford says, noting a corresponding improvement in heating and cooling performance.

A new powertrain roll restrictor and fluid-filled engine mounts don't hurt, either. As a result, the vehicle cabin is so quiet, conversation is effortless — unless there's a sudden throttle input.

Optional on Freestar and standard on Monterey, the 4.2L OHV V-6 suffers from the inherent crudeness that typically comes with pushrod technology. Its marked lack of refinement is somewhat mitigated by best-in-class torque — 263 lb.-ft. (352 Nm) — and the 4F50N 4-speed automatic transmission made smoother because its fluid “worm holes” have been shortened and straightened.

The competition's powertrain fare is notably more gourmet, though: smooth overhead-cam V-6s and 5-speed automatics.

All that's really missing from this dish is presentation. Even though Freestar features hundreds of parts that are different from Windstar, the two remain almost indistinguishable from the outside.

In keeping with the expectations for Mercury, Monterey is decidedly classier. But both still have the aroma of leftovers.