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Still unusual, if no longer unique, the 2004 Ford Explorer Sport Trac combines the interior room and comfort of a mid-size SUV with the open-air, haul-anything capability of a mid-size pickup truck. You might think of it as three-quarters of a Chevy Avalanche for about two-thirds the price.
Sport Trac is an SUV with a pickup bed. It has an outdoorsman's interior designed for easy cleaning and a bed made of a nearly impervious composite material. Yet it can carry a family of five in the comfort of a well-equipped Ford Explorer.
As its name implies, the Explorer Sport Trac is based on the Ford Explorer, the best selling sport-utility in America. That would be a very good thing, except that the Sport Trac is based on the previous-generation Explorer, not the 2003-04 model, so it does not have the current Explorer's all-new chassis with independent rear suspension. The previous-generation Explorer represented the state of SUV design in 2001, but the new Explorer, as well as competing mid-size SUVs, have since passed it by in ride, handling, and overall refinement. Time marches on and vehicles get better and better.
That said, Ford updated the Sport Trac for 2003 with four-wheel-disc brakes and ABS, plus height-adjustable seat belts with pre-tensioners. Ford's latest Safety Canopy side-curtain air bag system with rollover sensors is now available as an option. Interior trim, instrumentation, and the top-level Adrenalin sound system have been upgraded for 2004.
The 2004 Explorer Sport Trac is offered in XLS and XLT trim, and in rear-wheel drive (2WD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) configurations. All are powered by a 4.0-liter V6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission.
XLS 2WD ($23,195) and 4WD ($25,695) come with a reasonable level of standard equipment, including second-generation air bags, air conditioning, four-speaker CD stereo, bucket seats and center console, privacy glass, tachometer, Securilock anti-theft system, intermittent wipers, a four-pin trailer-tow harness, and P235/70R16 white-outline tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels.
XLT 2WD ($24,710) and 4WD ($27,540) add a leather-wrapped steering wheel with tilt, remote keyless entry with keypad, cruise control, power mirrors with security approach lamps, and woven floor mats.
Very few options are available for the XLS, while XLT offers a number of option packages and groups. Some of these packages are priced slightly higher with 4WD. The Comfort Group ($1230) includes a six-way power driver's seat with power lumbar support, an upgraded floor console, an overhead console with displays for compass and outside temperature, automatic headlamps, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. The Premium Sport Group ($700-730) includes 255/70R16 all-terrain tires on bright aluminum wheels, fog lamps, side-step bars, a 4.10 axle ratio and, on 4WD models, front tow hooks.
The XLT Premium Preferred Equipment Package ($2130-2190) combines the Premium and Comfort groups described above with a monochromatic exterior treatment. The Adrenaline Package ($1810) combines a 510-watt Pioneer stereo with chrome wheels, chrome step bars, and body-color bumpers and fascias. The Pioneer stereo is also available as a stand-alone option ($510), but only on the XLT. So is a power glass sunroof ($800). Leather seating ($795) is available only with the XLT Premium Preferred and/or Adrenaline packages.
Available on both XLS and XLT are a cargo cage ($195), and a hard tonneau cover ($590), and a limited-slip rear differential ($355) for the standard 3.73 or heavy-towing 4.10:1 axle.
Ford Explorer Sport Trac has a rugged, utilitarian look with chunky cladding trimming the lower portions of its bulging body. Sport Trac looks like a box, twice over. First comes the five-seat cabin, and then the bed trailing behind, like a separate unit. The bed walls are nearly 20 inches high. The overall effect is high and bulky.
The cargo bed is just over four feet long and made entirely of a seemingly indestructible composite material, so it does not need a liner and won't rust. Ford engineers say they dragged cinder blocks over it and threw in steel pipes and heavy angle iron without causing any appreciable damage. Any marring or scratching blends in with the black grained finish, anyway. Ten winged cargo hooks are sturdily mounted on the top rails of the bed, six on the outside and four on the inside; there's also a waterproof 12-volt power source in the cargo area, useful for power tools and even refrigerators.
The optional cargo cage/bed extender ($195) is a hinged, stainless-steel tube-frame that flips back to the edge of the dropped tailgate, increasing the bed length to 72 inches. It can be a useful device, but won't hold back dirt or other loose material. When flipped inside the bed, the bed extender creates a compartment 25 by 45 inches that can keep grocery bags and other small items from sliding around. It's removable, but requires much fiddling to get it out and back in. A lightweight, lockable two-piece hard tonneau cover is also available ($590).
The standard roof rack consists of just two longitudinal bars, with the crossbars sold as an accessory. You'll need the crossbars if you want to carry anything up there. When we loaded a nine-foot-long duffel bag full of sailing gear, we had to lay it directly on top of the paintwork.
Sport Trac's cabin is designed to be durable. Door panels are resilient plastic. Flooring is made of a textured composite rubber easily swept with a whisk broom or cleaned with water. Ford says it also reduces noise. Cloth is found only on the seats and headliner. The rest is ready for mud.
A power rear window slides up and down, which the kids in the back seat will love. Besides providing flow-through ventilation, it allows rear-seat passengers to reach through and grab things out of the bed, such as drinks from a cooler.
The front bucket seats were upgraded for 2003, and the instrument cluster has been revised for 2004. The center console provides big fixed cup holders in front, forward of the armrest, along with a little slot good for coins and tickets. Forward of that is another tray with two more slots, one of them fairly large.
Sport Trac's optional Safety Canopy air bags ($560) are designed to provide head protection in rollovers. We strongly recommend getting them.
The Comfort Group ($1,230) for the XLT adds six-way power for the driver's seat plus a deluxe floor console with auxiliary rear-seat climate and audio controls; an overhead console with map lights, a digital compass and an outside temperature gauge; automatic headlights; and an electrochromic rear-view mirror. The compass and outside temperature gauge are highly useful and appreciated tools that more carmakers should fit in their vehicles, especially any vehicle that may head into the backcountry. The leather seating option ($795) for the XLT Premium and XLT Adrenaline includes electric heat, six-way power and adjustable lumbar support for both driver and passenger. The leather seats have a two-tone appearance with a dark side bolsters and light center inserts.
The rear seats are roomy in the Sport Trac. Rear legroom is ample at 37.8 inches, a full seven inches more than in the Nissan Frontier crew cab pickup, and only a little more than an inch short of the Chevy Avalanche. At 38.7 inches, rear-seat headroom in the Sport Trac is marginally better than in the Avalanche. The Sport Trac's rear seat splits 60/40 and folds down without having to remove the headrests, quickly expanding cargo space inside the cabin. The back seat incorporates three child seat tether anchors. Unlike the Avalanche, however, it is not possible to open up the Sport Trac's rear seat into the bed area.
A removable nylon pack under the center armrest enables Sport Trac drivers to carry their console contents with them. It even has a shoulder strap. But we found it more awkward to use in the vehicle than a fixed, rigid compartment would have been. We rarely used it, because we didn't want to deal with first raising the armrest, then lifting the limp material top secured by Velcro.
One irritation is the parking brake, which requires a long reach to release.
Explorer Sport Trac is powered by Ford's 210-horsepower 4.0-liter V6. It's a sophisticated engine, with overhead cams, an aluminum head and aluminum pistons. It likes to rev, and it's smooth, responsive and great fun at speed.
Sport Trac comes with a five-speed automatic transmission that matches the engine for smoothness and sophistication. The optional 4.10 axle ratio should improve acceleration and towing performance, but at the expense of gas mileage because the engine will be revving higher at any given speed.
The four-wheel-drive system is electronically controlled and can be shifted on the fly between two- and four-wheel drive. A low-range mode is ready for heavy snow, deep mud or soft sand.
Sport Trac is more than just an Explorer with a pickup bed. To make the Sport Trac, Ford lengthened the previous-generation Explorer's frame more than 14 inches, for a 126-inch wheelbase. Thicker side rails, additional gussets and a tubular crossmember make the Sport Trac's frame 40 percent stiffer than the old Explorer's, despite the extra length. Urethane body mounts, the first ever used on an SUV, help smooth out the ride. But Sport Trac still doesn't ride as smoothly as the latest-generation Explorer, which boasts an independent rear suspension and many other improvements.
Sport Trac is quite tall, so it doesn't handle like a car. The bushings, spring rates, shock valving and stabilizer bars have been modified, according to Ford, to improve ride, handling, and isolation relative to the old Explorer. Still, the Sport Trac pitches, weaves, sways and jounces. It's not uncomfortable, but these ride motions grow larger as the road gets rougher or as speed increases. And the power rack-and-pinion steering did not provide as much assist as we would have liked for parallel parking in tight spaces.
But the Sport Trac is quiet. A lot of effort went into reducing the noise level in the cabin, successfully.
Sport Trac's suspension works well off the highway and in light snow and mud; but we wouldn't call this a highly capable off-road vehicle. Payload is 1,525 pounds, with a 5,300-pound maximum towing capacity for two-wheel-drive models. Towing heavy loads (like a race car) frequently will likely put wear on a Sport Trac just as it did on the previous-generation Explorer.
The Sport Trac comes with bigger brake rotors than the previous-generation Explorer, using ventilated discs in front and solid discs in the rear. Disc brakes resist fade better than drum brakes, good when braking frequently down mountain grades.
Ford Explorer Sport Trac is still an innovative design packed with small refinements that make life more convenient, both in town and in the backcountry. Its willing engine, solid frame, and well-engineered body make Explorer Sport Trac an impressive sport-utility truck.
In ride and handling, however, the Sport Trac has been surpassed by the newest SUVs.