12/11/96 -- 11:42 PM

Ford Windstar,0389

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) - Ford Motor Co. has introduced the 1998 Windstar minivan that has an extended driver's door the automaker hopes will compete with the popular ``fourth door'' option on Chrysler minivans.

Strong demand for Chrysler's fourth door - a sliding rear door on the driver's side to match the standard passenger-side sliding door - took the industry by surprise when it went on sale last year.

Windstar sales suffered and Ford rushed to get the modified version off the drawing board. General Motors Corp. has redesigned its minivans to include a model with a fourth door. It began arriving in showrooms.

The new Windstar, unveiled Wednesday, is designated a '98 model, but it will go on sale Jan. 13 and replace the '97 model that had a run of just three months. With the exception of some minor styling changes and the larger door, the '98 is virtually identical to the '97.

The new driver's door is 6 inches wider to allow for easier entry into and exit from the second row of seats. But that easy entry is possible only with the ``tip-slide'' front seat, which allows the seat to move well under the steering wheel. The seat is standard on high trim models and optional on others.

Ford says it expects more than 95 percent of Windstars to be equipped with the tip-slide seat.

The automaker originally opted not to design a fourth door on the Windstar, based on market research showing only a third of potential buyers would be interested in it.

``The market acceptance we didn't anticipate,'' said J.C. Collins Jr., a Ford brand manager.

But the Windstar's body design made a sliding fourth door impossible. The extended driver's door was designed as a compromise.

Collins said Ford expects the new Windstar to cut into Chrysler minivan sales and to keep GM's minivan sales stagnant, despite its new models. The company expects to sell 240,000 Windstars next year, up from about 200,000 this year.

The new Windstar also includes a unique ``conversation mirror,'' an adjustable wide-angle mirror in the center console above the windshield that allows the driver to keep an eye on the passengers.

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