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Unless you've spent the past half dozen years doing doctoral research among the Mud People of the Upper Amazon, you have taken note of the phenomenon called the sport-utility vehicle, the SUV to some, the sport-ute to others. You may even be an owner. If so, you are a member of one of the fastest growing clubs in the country. Virtually every manufacturer selling cars in the U.S. offers an SUV, and there are more coming.
But none of them, not even Jeep, can come close to the sales champ, the Ford Explorer. One of every four sport-utilities sold is an Explorer. Last year that meant 402,663 units, and that made the Explorer the third best selling vehicle in the country, trailing only a pair of pickup trucks.
With the addition of an excellent new overhead cam V6 engine this year, the Explorer's numbers are likely to get even better. The new V6, which has a single cam over each bank of cylinders, with two valves per cylinder, displaces 4.0 liters, produces 205 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, delivered to the wheels via a new five-speed automatic transmission. The basic 4.0-liter overhead valve V6 and the four speed automatic are still available, as is a 5.0-liter V8.
A simple three-position dial on the instrument panel controls the four-wheel-drive system. The normal mode is Auto. This mode continually monitors and adjusts power to the front wheels to minimize slip. The 4x4 High mode electronically locks the transfer case in high gear, providing a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear wheels. This mode is primarily for off road and extreme winter conditions. The 4x4 Low mode switches the transfer case to the lower gear ranges for serious off-roading.
Explorer permutations are numerable. They start with a basic two-door, two-wheel-drive XL at $20,610, including destination, and stop with the four-door, 4WD Limited at $35,530. Our tester, a four-door 4WD XLT, equipped the way many are sold, sits in between the extremes at $29,635. Depending on certain option packages, the new V6 with the five-speed automatic can be added to the XLT for $425. The V8, with a trailer-towing package and four-speed automatic, tacks on an additional $1545.
Before there was Explorer, there was the Jeep Cherokee with its straight lines and sharp edges. The Explorer introduced softer lines and rounded edges and set the prevailing SUV style in the process. That look continues. The distinctive, and large, grille opening is flanked by wraparound headlights. There's a slot for air in the bumper, and an air scoop below.
The look suggests refined ruggedness, as well as strong family ties with the Ford truck family--which is precisely what the designers intended.
The hood slants steeply, which gives the Explorer an aggressive look--helped by the big Firestone ATX all-terrain radials on our tester, and bulging fender flares. The P235/75R15 tires are mounted on cast aluminum wheels.
The front suspension is independent, using Ford's short and long arm design. At the rear--a vestige of its truck heritage--is a two-leaf variable rate spring for each wheel, which accounts for the Explorer's ride characteristics, about which more in a moment.
There are disc brakes all around and ABS is standard, features that give the Explorer an edge over many of its competitors.
We liked the rear liftgate a lot. There is a simple T handle marked Gate on one side, Window on the other. Turn towards Gate and the top-hinged door rises easily and parks well up and out of the way. Turn the handle towards Window and the window can be raised by itself. Another feature we liked is an interior power lock/unlock button on top of the left rear wheel well that operates all the door locks. Privacy glass is part of the XLT package.
This is a sport-utility truck, don't forget, so there is some climbing to be done getting in. But entry height is not a serious problem. Shorter folks may find the optional running boards helpful.
The overall design of the interior is quite good, featuring the flowing shapes and soft-edged buttons and controls now favored by Ford. The various controls are king-size, making them easy to operate when the vehicle is moving, and we give the overall appearance of the instrument panels top marks. This is perhaps the best looking and most functional layout in the business.
Seating is also a big plus. The front buckets are covered in high-quality cloth with a subtle, subdued pattern which was a welcome relief from some of the throwback psychedelia we've run into lately. The seats were among the most supportive in this class, with aggressive thigh and side bolsters. Very comfortable.
The Explorer's other strong suit is best-in-class roominess. In fact, roominess is perhaps the key element in this vehicle's perennial popularity. Although some key competitors have launched updates since the Explorer's most recent redesign, the Explorer still rules in this important category.
You can treat an Explorer like a compact family sedan. It is, as mentioned, easy to get in and out of. Visibility all around is quite good in spite of the rather large B and C roof pillars. The driver enjoys that secure, command-of-the-road seating position that's helped to make sport-utilities and pickup trucks so popular.
However, the Explorer doesn't really feel like a truck on the road. Well, maybe a little--but only a little. While the ride is far from bouncy and sharp, it is more springy than any sedan, and the reason has to be those antique leaf springs in the rear. It is not offensive, but you will notice it. The suspension does do a good job absorbing road irregularities, though, and that's how it differs from trucks. Firm but comfortable, with a strong sense of control.
We were a little surprised at the level of wind noise in the 40-60 mph range in what otherwise is a solid, put-together vehicle.
Also, the new V6 becomes noticeably audible under hard acceleration. On the other hand, that's common for sport-utility vehicles, and the engine is smooth and quiet in normal operation.
We were very pleasantly surprised by the straight-line performance those 205 horses provided. This is, we reminded ourselves, a 4166-pound truck. Nevertheless, it launched with enthusiasm and maintained that enthusiasm to a degree that would calm any concerns about safe merging with traffic.
Although the Explorer has racked up virtually all of its huge sales numbers with the standard overhead valve engine, the overhead cam version is a whole order of magnitude better and we recommend it strongly.
At moderate speed on a favorite section of twisty bits, the Explorer was quite good: no lean in turns, the steering was exceptionally quick and precise, no wander in a straight line and on the narrow road did not give the impression it was about to shoulder on-coming traffic into the ditch. It simply does not drive large.
The Explorer continues to be the best-selling SUV in the country, even though it isn't necessarily the best SUV in the country, at least if real off-road use is a factor. Modest ground clearance and a long wheelbase limit its usefulness in rough country.
What seems to keep the Explorer on top is its roominess, solid reputation for durability, quality engineering, class-leading looks and its overall reputation as the leader. Those are the things that keep resale values up.
The new V6 engine is a sweetheart, and unless you must have the extra torque provided by the V8 for serious trailering, we can't advise spending the extra money.
The Explorer operates in a very populous realm, against some very able competition. And it's not the least expensive, by any means. But for the kind of all-around uses most families find for their sport-utilities, the Explorer's formula is still tough to beat.