America's best-selling sport-utility vehicle goes for another crown.
by Mike Knepper
Base Price $20,590
As Tested $29,745
There seems to be an unending stream of sport-utility vehicles hitting showrooms, but none have come close to the popularity of the Ford Explorer.
Its roominess, solid reputation for durability, quality engineering, good looks and overall reputation are all factors in its huge popularity.
Before the Ford Explorer existed 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, large grille 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-and that's precisely what the designers intended. There is a new front bumper and round fog lamps, new body side moldings, roof rack and lift gate trim. But the familiar Explorer is still there.
The hood slants steeply, which gives the Explorer an aggressive look. Bulging fender flares and big Firestone ATX all-terrain radials mounted on cast aluminum wheels added to the rugged appearance of our Explorer.
Ford's recently introduced short- and long-arm independent front suspension is used up front. At the rear-a vestige of its truck heritage is variable-rate leaf springs. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard, which gives the Explorer an edge over many of its competitors.
Last year, the tailgate was redesigned with a larger rear window, new taillamps and other design details.
We like the redesigned lift gate. Turn the new T-handle 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 like 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.
A new optional Reverse Sensing System makes parallel parking much easier. The system uses sonar to warn the driver when anything is less than six feet behind the vehicle. The driver is alerted by a beeping sound that increases in frequency as the vehicle approaches the obstacle; the tone becomes continuous when the rear bumper is less than 10 inches from the object. We found the system to be extremely helpful in accurately judging distances when backing up. Four ultrasonic sensors will detect something as low as a curb and will detect bushes and other vegetation. It's useful for positioning the Explorer for loading and unloading. And it reduces the chance of backing over your child's Big Wheel.
The Inside Story
This is a sport-utility vehicle, 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.
Safety is improved this year with new optional side air bags. Housed in the outer side bolster of the front seats, they deploy within 30 milliseconds of impact.
A new Homelink system can operate up to three remote controls to open garage doors and turn on house lights, which improves safety and convenience. And Travelnote provides the driver with an electronic message recorder and play-back system.
Three engines are available: a 4.0-liter overhead-valve V-6 rated at 160 horsepower, a 4.0-liter single overhead-cam V-6 with 210 horsepower, and a 5.0-liter V-8 that makes 215 horsepower.
Deciding to buy an Explorer is not too difficult. Deciding which Explorer with which engine and which transmission may take an afternoon of brochure browsing. The lineup ranges from the $20,590 two-door, two-wheel-drive XL to the four-door, four-wheel-drive Limited priced at more than $35,000. In between are the Sport, XLS, XLT and Eddie Bauer. New for '99, the XLS is designed to bring some of the sporty appearance of the two-door model to the four-door body at a price below the four-door XLT.
Our $29,355 four-door XLT 4X4 sits in between the extremes and comes loaded with standard features. The only option on ours were the $390 side airbags, which come with sport bucket seats.
The XLT comes with the popular 4.0-liter SOHC V-6. This is the best engine for most folks. It provides plenty of power for passing and tackling long grades, yet it's inexpensive and delivers good fuel economy. It also comes with the five-speed automatic transmission, which does a great job. The V-8 is the best choice for anyone who tows a trailer. With the trailer-towing package and four-speed automatic, it costs an extra $1600.
Ride & Drive
For many owners, the Explorer is used as a midsize station wagon. It's easy to get in and out. Visibility all around is quite good in spite of the roof's large B- and C- pillars. The driver enjoys that secure, command-of-the-road seating position that's helped make sport-utility vehicles so popular.
The Explorer doesn't really drive like a truck. Though more springy than a sedan, the ride is comfortable. Some of that springiness has to do with its rear leaf springs, some of it has to do with the big tires. The suspension does do a good job absorbing road irregularities, though, and that's how it differs from other trucks. Its firmness provides a strong sense of control while maintaining ride comfort.
The Explorer handles well at moderate speeds on our favorite section of twisty bits. There's no excessive body lean in turns. The steering is exceptionally quick and precise. It doesn't wander in a straight line. It's easy to manage on narrow roads. It simply does not drive large.
Overall, the Explorer feels like a solid, well-built vehicle, though there is a bit of wind noise in the 40-60 mph range.
We're pleased with the acceleration performance provided by the revised 210-horsepower V-6. It felt like more than 210 horsepower was powering our 4166-pound truck. It launches with enthusiasm and maintains that enthusiasm to a degree that would calm any concerns about safe merging with traffic. Like most sport-utility vehicles, the engine becomes noticeably audible under hard acceleration, but it's smooth and quiet under normal operation. Overall, the single overhead-cam V-6 engine is a sweetheart. Unless extra torque is needed for towing a car or a big boat, we don't think it's necessary to spend the extra money for the V-8.
Although the Explorer has racked up virtually all of its huge sales numbers with the standard 160-horsepower overhead-valve engine, the 210-horsepower overhead-cam engine is a much better powerplant. We recommend it strongly.
A simple three-position dial on the instrument panel controls the four-wheel-drive system. The Auto mode is used for most driving, which continually monitors and adjusts power to the front wheels to minimize wheel 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.
Though superior to a car in terms of off-road capability, the Explorer is not the leader in backwoods prowess. Its modest ground clearance and a long wheelbase make climbing in easy and provide a smooth ride on the highway, but limit the Explorer's usefulness in rough country.
Under hard acceleration, the four-wheel-drive system sends more power to the front wheels to reduce the likelihood of the rear wheels slipping. The anti-lock brakes improve control on slippery surfaces, allowing the driver to brake and steer at the same time.
The Explorer operates in a populous realm, against some very able competition. It's not the least expensive sport-utility vehicle. But for the kind of all-around use most families get from their SUVs, the Explorer's formula is still tough to beat.
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