Subtle changes for the most popular SUV.

by Mike Knepper

Base Price $22,010
As Tested $29,585

There seems to be an unending stream of sport-utility vehicles hitting showrooms. But none have come close to the popularity of Ford's Explorer.

It has been so successful that there has been little inducement to change it. However, there are some improvements for 1998. A programming change in the four-wheel-drive system sends more power to the front wheels under hard acceleration to lessen the likelihood of the rear wheels slipping. The standard ABS has been massaged to improve control on slippery surfaces, with reduced noise and vibration when activated. The rack-and-pinion steering system has been refined for better on-center feel and quicker response. All models now have Ford's SecuriLock security system, which the company claims is virtually impossible to defeat.

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 driving off road or in extreme winter conditions. The 4X4 Low mode switches the transfer case to the lower gear ranges for serious off-roading.

The Explorer offers an engine for everyone. Choices start with a 4.0-liter overhead-valve V-6 rated at 160 horsepower. Next up is a 4.0-liter single overhead-cam V-6 with 205 hp. And finally, the big 5.0-liter V-8 makes 215 hp.

Explorer permutations are numerable. They start with a basic two-door, two-wheel-drive XL at $20,405 (including destination), and stop with the four-door, 4WD Limited at more than $35,000. Our tester, a four-door XLT 4X4, equipped the way many are sold, sits in between the extremes at $29,585. That includes the 4.0-liter SOHC V-6, our recommendation, for $540. The V-8, with a trailer-towing package and four-speed automatic, tacks on another $1600. All told, in ascending order of trim and price, there is Explorer XL, Sport, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited. Deciding to buy an Explorer is not too difficult. Deciding which Explorer with which engine and which transmission could take an afternoon of brochure browsing.

Walkaround

Before there was Explorer, there was 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 recently introduced short- and long-arm design. At the rear -- a vestige of its truck heritage -- is a two-leaf variable rate spring for each wheel. Disc brakes are used all around and ABS is standard, features that give the Explorer an edge over many of its competitors.

The major exterior change for 1998 is a new liftgate. The glass-release handle is larger and the window is larger. The taillamps, license plate attachments, the high stop light and name badges are new.

We liked the new rear liftgate a lot. There is a simple T-handle marked "Gate" on one side, "Window" on the other. Turn toward "Gate" and the top-hinged door rises easily and parks up and well out of the way. Turn the handle toward "Window" and the glass can be raised by itself. Another feature we liked is a convenient interior power lock/unlock button on top of the left rear wheel-well for operating the door locks when standing at the back of the vehicle. Privacy glass is part of the XLT package and more lightly tinted glass is standard on all models.

The Inside Story

This is a sport-utility truck, so there is some climbing to be done getting in. But entry height is not a serious problem. Shorter folks may find 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 panel top marks. This is perhaps the best-looking and most functional layout in the business. Floor consoles have been redesigned. Higher trim levels boast rear cupholders and a storage bin. The optional moon roof has a one-touch-open feature.

Seating is a big plus. The front buckets are covered in high-quality cloth with an attractive, subdued pattern. The seats are among the most supportive in this class, with aggressive thigh and side bolsters.

The Explorer's other strong suit is its best-in-class roominess, perhaps the key element in its popularity.

Ride & Drive

You can treat an Explorer like a compact family sedan. It is, as mentioned, easy to get in and out of it. Visibility all around is quite good in spite of the large B- and C- roof pillars. The driver enjoys that secure, command-of-the-road seating position that's helped to make sport-utility vehicles 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, well-built vehicle.

Also, the new V-6 becomes noticeably audible under hard acceleration. That's common for sport-utility vehicles, however, and Ford's V-6 engine is smooth and quiet in normal operation.

We were 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. 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 oncoming traffic into the ditch. It simply does not drive large.

Final Word

The Explorer continues to be the best-selling sport-utility vehicle in the country. It isn't necessarily the best SUV in the country, at least if real off-road capability 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, good looks and its overall reputation as the leader. Those are the things that keep resale values up.

The single overhead-cam V-6 engine is a sweetheart, and unless you must have the extra torque provided by the V-8 for serious trailering, we can't advise spending the extra money.

The Explorer operates in a 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-utility vehicles, the Explorer's formula is still tough to beat.

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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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