Ford dealers attending meetings in Las Vegas have had their first look at the 2004 Freestyle, a six- or seven-passenger "crossover" vehicle with three rows of seats and optional all-wheel-drive.

The Freestyle - which uses a name recently applied to some limited-edition Ford Europe models - is claimed to combine the best features of a sedan with sport utility versatility.

Ford first confirmed the development program to create the vehicle, then codenamed 'CrossTrainer', at the Chicago Auto Show in February.

Ford Division president Steve Lyons announced in Las Vegas that the new model would be badged Freestyle when launched in 2004.

"This car is one of the cornerstones in our product-led transformation. It represents the new face of Ford products of tomorrow with innovation in design, package, functionality and fun," Lyons said.

The Freestyle shares common architecture and manufacturing resources with the new Five Hundred sedan, also debuting in 2004.

"The Freestyle and its cousin, the Five Hundred, are just two of the breakthrough products we'll be introducing in the coming years," said Lyons.

"In 2002, we focused on our SUV lineup. In 2003, we'll introduce the next generation of the world's best-selling vehicle, the F-Series and a redesigned version of the minivan safety leader, the Ford Windstar. The year 2004 will be the year of the car, with Freestyle, Five Hundred and our production version of the GT40 concept. And that's only part of the story. There's much more to come."

"We've seen truck, minivan and SUV growth surges over the past decade or so," said Ford product development chief Chris Theodore.

"The new segment that FreeStyle defines is a major growth opportunity for the future. There are a lot of different ways to go about doing a crossover-type vehicle. We looked at them all, but in the end, we went a different way than the competition, creating a unique, purpose-built crossover architecture that delivers a vehicle unique to the market."

Theodore claimed that extensive research with potential customers had shown the company it had hit on the right crossover formula.

Rather than use random searches and tests through hundreds or even thousands of names, Ford offered customers, who were given a preview, a small list of about 10 names at a time. Larger, original lists were generated by the advertising agency, the product development team and marketing team. The lists were culled down to manageable numbers to allow customers to focus and reach a consensus.

Names beginning in the letter 'F' were heavily favoured by internal and external groups, especially when considered as a part of a larger lineup of similarly named cars and associated with the Ford brand. The name Freestyle emerged top of all studies and also carried the highest association with the Ford brand among all names considered.