by Alex Law

On sale: Winter 2001
Estimated pricing: $18,000 to $26,000

When the 2002 Ford Explorer arrives early next year, it will be farther away than ever from Ford's pickup truck roots and even closer to the values of the vehicle it's replacing: the large family sedan.

This means the Explorer will be wider, roomier, more comfortable, more powerful and responsive, safer, quieter, better handling, capable of carrying seven people, and about the same price as the previous model, which was the world's best-selling sport-utility and the fourth best-selling vehicle in the U.S. last year.

All of this should be good news to the people who have grown tired of the truck-based Explorer's unpleasant ride characteristics, noisy and cramped cabin, and questionable ride and handling.

The first big trick to improving the ride quality was to move the wheels farther apart, resulting in a wheelbase that is 2 inches longer. Overall, the next Explorer will be 2.5 inches wider than the current model, but the body will be about the same length.

The second big trick to improving the new Explorer involved the use of an independent rear suspension in place of the live axle. This greatly increases interior space in the rear and improves ride and handling.

Into this more commodious package Ford put a much more ergonomic interior. The front seats are farther apart, there's a big, useful center console, the stereo and climate control systems in the middle of the dash have been improved, the foot pedals move to suit different driver sizes, and the interior sound levels improved.

Noise, vibration and harshness issues were given a top priority in the 2002 Explorer because they are closely related to owner happiness. As a result, Ford designers had to start with hood and windshield angles that best suited the demands of reducing wind noise. So noises have been banished, good sounds enhanced, and the audibility climate improved so conversation is easier.

Which means you'll have a better chance of hearing either or both of the people, grownups as well as kids, sitting in the optional third-row seat. The new 40-20-20 second seat (with a storage space under the middle part) folds easily out of the way to allow entry to the rear seat, and the rear seat itself easily folds flat to allow for decent storage space in the back.

Ford has lowered the step-in height of the Explorer and narrowed the running board so that it won't get in the way of people not using it but is still wide enough to step on if you need it.

The rear hatch is the final piece of the entry-egress puzzle, since it has a window that opens up to allow convenient storage of parcels between the door and the seat. For bigger items, the door lifts up, with the window open or closed.

A new side-impact curtain air bag system will be available and rollover protection sensors will be available later in 2001. This is in addition to driver and passenger dual-stage air bags.

Ford promises a much better ride with the new Explorer, thanks primarily to the independent rear suspension but also to alterations in the car's chassis and front suspension settings. Though it may not be offered initially, Ford's new AdvanceTrac interactive vehicle dynamics system will combine the benefits of traction control with electronic stability (yaw) control.

Engines will be upgraded, as well: The 4.0-liter V6 will produce 210 horsepower and 250 pounds-feet of torque, while the optional 4.6-liter V8 cranks out 240 horsepower and 280 pounds-feet of torque. New automatic and manual transmissions will be available.

For those who actually venture off-road, the Explorer features an inch more ground clearance.

© 2000 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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