All aboard! New Explorer seats seven.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price (MSRP) $24,020
As Tested (MSRP) $35,160

All new for 2002, the Ford Explorer is better than the previous version in every respect. Handling and ride quality are improved with a new frame and an independent rear suspension. Performance is quicker with new or improved overhead-cam engines. It's a quieter, more refined vehicle with an all-new interior. New safety features are being introduced.

But the biggest news for the Explorer is the availability of third-row seating, allowing it to carry up to seven passengers. It's roomier and more comfortable, benefits of its longer wheelbase, wider track and some clever engineering.

In spite of all this, the new Explorer looks familiar inside and out. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. In all likelihood, the Ford Explorer will continue to be America's most popular station wagon.

Model Lineup

Four trim levels are available: XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer, Limited. XLS and XLT come standard with cloth; Eddie Bauer and Limited come with leather.

An overhead-cam V6 engine is now standard on all models, boosting the Explorer's power considerably. A new overhead-cam V8 ($695) is optional on all models. All trim levels offer a choice of two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive models.

XLS ($24,020) comes with cloth upholstery, a high level of standard equipment, and a five-speed manual transmission. Ford's new five-speed automatic transmission ($1095) is optional. Four-wheel drive adds $1800. XLS does not offer some of the high-zoot options available on the other models, including the V8.

XLT ($27,780) gets nicer sport cloth upholstery, a six-way power driver's seat, body-colored exterior trim, a CD stereo instead of cassette, and more interior features, such as a temperature gauge and compass, map lights and dome lights, outside approach lighting, extra power outlets, illuminated keypad for keyless entry. The new five-speed automatic transmission is standard, and aluminum alloy wheels replace steel wheels. Four-wheel drive adds $1965. Leather upholstery with a six-way power driver's seat is available for $655.

Limited and Eddie Bauer models (both $34,055) come with leather seating surfaces, automatic dual-zone climate control, a 290-watt six-CD stereo with six speakers, adjustable power pedals, fog lights, and wider tires. Six-way adjustable heated power seats with dual manual lumbar supports are used in front, and the driver's seat has a three-position memory feature. Four-wheel drive adds $1965.

The top two Explorer models differ only in their distinctive trim: Eddie Bauer comes with Arizona beige bumpers, moldings, lower bodyside cladding, and satin-nickel wheels and grille. Limited uses monochromatic bumpers, moldings and cladding with a silver grille and special wheels; there's also a white pearl coat Limited that uses frost accents.

Third-row seating ($670), auxiliary air conditioning ($610), running boards ($395), Reverse Sensing System ($255), and power moonroof ($800) are options available on all models. A Trailer Towing Prep Package ($395) replaces the Class II hitch (standard) with a Class III hitch, and adds a 3.73 limited-slip rear axle and other hardware.

Front side-impact (side curtain) airbags ($495) are optional, which are designed to protect front and second-row occupants. Dual front airbags are standard. Anti-lock brakes are standard. Seatbelts use retractors and pretensioners designed to reduce injuries in a hard crash. The second-row center seat offers only a lap belt rather than the preferred shoulder harness, however.

Significant safety improvements will be added as a running change to the 2002 model shortly before the beginning of calendar year 2002. The headliner is a new safety canopy (that replaces the side curtain airbags) designed to protect occupants during a rollover in addition to protecting them from a side impact by staying inflated for a much longer period of time. Smarter airbags, Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability program, power-adjustable pedals, and a telescoping steering wheel will also be added near the end of 2001. There's no obvious way to tell whether an Explorer has this new set of features, so you'll need to check with the dealership regarding their availability.

Walkaround

No one should have any trouble identifying the new Ford Explorer. Everything on it is new, but the styling is an evolutionary design. It still looks like an Explorer, just fresher and more contemporary. Ford didn't want to take any risks with the Explorer's design after the styling of the previous Taurus was so roundly criticized. It's a handsome vehicle and it looks contemporary. Just don't expect people to stop, turn and stare when you drive by.

Modern integrated front and rear fascia replace the previous bumper treatments. New jeweled headlamps and tail lamps improve safety. Better perimeter lighting from approach lights mounted on the bottoms of the outside mirrors enhances security. Uplevel models come standard with an illuminated keypad on the door for keyless entry. Ford says it's a popular feature among loyal owners. A beefed up roof rack was designed to support up to 200 pounds.

While the new Explorer attracted little attention, the new Mountaineer caused people in parking lots to stop and point; people on the highway would look at it as they passed by, then stare in their mirrors.

The new Explorer is the same overall length and the previous model, but it sits on a (two-inch) longer wheelbase and a much wider track, making it more stable and more comfortable. Lowered frame rails mean the front and rear of the Explorer matches up to a Taurus bumper for improved safety for those around you.

Interior Features

Though everything inside the Explorer is new, our Eddie Bauer felt familiar, with the familiar beige steering wheel, the familiar pinhole leather seating material. Light-colored trim on the inside A-pillars and grab handle add to a light, airy atmosphere. It's a successful execution, though the mouse fur roof liner is nothing to write home about. Leather on the Eddie Bauer model is attractive, but it seems like they could have put leather on the visible inside edge of the seat bottom. We've only glimpsed the cloth and weren't overly impressed, but it may have been a base XLS model.

Handsome gray wood accents, adjustable pedals, a telescoping steering wheel (CY2002), and increased seat travel make the Explorer fit a wider variety of body types. Big coat hooks accommodate thick hangers and big loads of dry cleaning. Nicely designed cubby holes with rubber mats and a relatively large center console help keep odds and ends in check. Interior door handles seem a bit awkward, though, especially on the driver's door; I found myself fumbling around for it at night. Map pockets on the insides of the doors are handy and swell at the end to hold water bottles, but they wouldn't accommodate my one-liter Poland Springs water bottle.

The front seats are comfortable. They are wider and offer more fore-and-aft travel than before. Seat heaters are part of the Eddie Bauer way of living. They keep you warm while the truck is still heating up. The buttons for them are mounted on the sides of seats, which is a bit awkward. Reaching down the side of the driver's seat, the left hand is confronted with an array of seat adjusters. Finding and pressing the seat heater button illuminates a small indicator for each seat on the climate control display. Your passenger will fumble around a bit the first time he or she tries to turn it on. Likewise, it isn't always easy to find the height adjuster. Rake is easy to adjust and there's a knob on the uplevel seats for cranking in some lumbar support.

The decision to add a third row of seating drove much of the design and engineering of the 2002 Explorer. As a result, Ford has done an excellent job of making the third row as roomy as possible, while enabling the driver to quickly flip it out of the way when it isn't needed.

The third row offers as much headroom as the second row, but legroom, shoulder room and hip room are significantly compromised. After flipping the second-row seat neatly out of the way, you can climb back there, fold the second-row seat back into position and slide your feet underneath, which provides somewhat tolerable legroom. It isn't comfortable for an adult, however. There's little shoulder room, and the third-row bench is a bit hard on the outboard edge; it pushes you away from the outboard side toward the center. It'll work okay for small children, but if you need six- or seven-passenger seating on a regular basis you may want to consider a Windstar.

Also, there's not much room in back for groceries or other items when the third row is in place. When cargo space is needed, simply squeeze a lever and lightly push the third row forward. With some practice, it's possible to unlock the rear hatch, open it, and flip the third row out of the way with one hand, which is important when juggling an armload of groceries. The third-row bench folds neatly into the foot well. Well, maybe not so neatly.

The downside here is that the cargo floor is not flat in seven-passenger Explorers. Neither the second nor the third rows fold perfectly flat. So the floor slopes back toward the rear hatch. A sliding cover bridges the gap between the two folded seats, but you could still lose small items through the cracks. The sloping floor took Caesar, the 140-pound English mastiff, aback at first, but he quickly adjusted to it; the sliding panel made a popping noise when he stood on it, but that may have been because it wasn't fully deployed. (Be sure to fold all the seats down to see what we're talking about here.)

Though we haven't seen one, five-passenger models are supposed to get a flatter cargo floor, a bit more cargo capacity, and a useful storage area below the floor. Seven-passenger models offer 81.3 cubic feet of cargo space, while five-passenger models offer 88 cubic feet.

That cargo floor is 7 inches lower at the rear than the previous Explorer and significantly lower than the load floor of a Dodge Durango. That lower load height makes a big difference when loading and unloading. Pressing a button on the rear hatch opens the rear glass separately. The lower edge of the rear window is very low, making it easier to lift things up and put them through the rear window. A grab handle on the inside of the hatch makes it easy for the height-challenged to pull it down before closing.

The second row of seats, the row we recommend for those who didn't get to drive or sit up front, is quite comfortable. Sliding your feet under the front seats increases legroom.

Extra auxiliary power outlets in the front and second-row seats are useful, but they didn't put one in the very back.

Driving Impressions

Our first impression of the new Explorer was that it offers substantial refinement over the previous version, which feels like a buckboard wagon by comparison. Ride quality and handling are greatly improved, benefits of the Explorer's new frame, chassis and suspension system. New engines give it more power for acceleration and towing, and the four-wheel-drive system gets more refined every year. It's still a truck, though. Tire whir is heard; road vibration is felt.

Technical stuff: While the previous Explorer used an independent front suspension with torsion bars and a live rear axle, the new one benefits from a four-wheel independent suspension with coil springs at all four corners. But it goes well beyond that. When Ford redesigned the Explorer, its first decision was to add the third row. There wasn't enough room in the previous model for the seats and there wasn't enough space below the cargo floor to fold them down. Stretching the wheelbase provided some space for the seats. (The overall length of the Explorer remains the same.) Replacing the old live rear axle with an independent rear suspension provided room to lower the floor. A clever porthole designed into the frame allows the half shafts to pass through the frame rails instead of beneath them. While these changes allowed Ford to add the third row, a big side benefit is improved handling and ride quality. The new frame is fully boxed front to rear, providing a far more rigid platform, which allows the engineers to more precisely tune the suspension. The independent rear suspension offers better lateral stiffness, yet more fore/aft compliance than a live rear axle. Up front, Coil springs replace the old torsion bars for better bump absorption.

As a result, the Explorer delivers a smoother ride on rough roads, and it handles better on winding roads. It's very stable at high speeds and feels comfortably secure in bad weather. Running over bumpy surfaces in the middle of a corner doesn't upset the handling, though it is still a truck.

One thing Ford learned from the massive Firestone tire recall was to offer a selection of tires. Depending on trim level, Explorer buyers can now choose among Goodyears, Michelins, and Firestones. Sixteen-inch wheels are now standard with P235/70R16 tires standard, slightly wider P245/70R16s on Eddie Bauer and Limited models.

Off road, the Ford Explorer has never measured up to the competition and the 2002 model doesn't really change that. There are improvements, however. Ground clearance is increased by an inch and shorter front and rear overhangs provide better approach and departure angles, which means you don't scrape the ground as much as before.

About 60 percent of Explorer buyers will opt for 4WD. Explorer's optional Control Trac four-wheel-drive system works great. Our 2002 Explorer offered surprisingly good grip on a muddy, snow-covered two-track in the Arizona high country near Sedona. Ford has refined this system to make it more transparent to the driver, while improving its abilities in limited traction situations. The normal driving mode is Auto 4WD (there is no two-wheel-drive mode.) In Auto 4WD, Control Trac directs the power front to rear according to input from sensors that compare grip between front and rear wheels. If the rear wheels lose traction, the optimal amount of torque is transferred to the front. Using a new, dedicated controller, the system checks for slipping tires 50 times a second and can anticipate situations that are likely to cause the wheels to spin, such as hard acceleration.

Pressing a button shifts the system into 4WD Hi, which effectively locks the front and rear drive shafts together. This can be useful for severe off-road or winter conditions, though Auto 4WD does such a great job of transferring torque that it may be irrelevant in practical terms. Driving on a muddy, primitive trail, I couldn't tell the difference between Auto 4WD and 4WD Hi. It may be possible to detect subtle slip in Auto 4WD on slippery, snow-covered surfaces, but bottom line is you can in it in Auto 4WD for all but the worst traction conditions.

4WD Low works well for creeping along on a slippery two-track. We found it does a good job of engine braking down steep grades, and we suspect it will be helpful on slippery boat ramps.

It's easy to control Explorer off road. Modulating the throttle can be precise; throttle tip-in is gradual so you're not lurching off the line. There's no question the Explorer can go most of the places most of us will want to go. In terms of serious off-road capability, however, it doesn't have the suspension articulation of a Jeep Grand Cherokee or a Land Rover Discovery. But it's a nicer vehicle than the Grand Cherokee in most other respects, with a better quality interior, and a smoother, more refined ride quality.

Out with the old overhead-valve engines, in with newer overhead-cam engines. Ford has dropped the old 160-horsepower pushrod V6 that was a popular choice on the base model. Now, the base engine is a modern 210-horsepower overhead-cam 4.0-liter V6. Available as an option on previous Explorers, the V6 has been revised for 2002 with a new intake system for increased performance and aluminum main bearings for improved durability. Acceleration from the V6 is quite respectable, thanks to the 250 pounds-feet of torque it can generate at 4000 rpm. You can hear and feel that V6 under full throttle acceleration, and it isn't as smooth as a Lexus RX 300's V6, but it's entirely within acceptable bounds. Unless you're towing or live at high altitude, you're not likely to need the V8.

Likewise, the old cast-iron 5.0-liter overhead-valve V8 has been dropped in favor of an all-aluminum overhead-cam 4.6-liter V8. (Technically, this 4.6-liter engine isn't brand new; it has been used in other ford vehicles, but it is new to the Explorer.) The V8 delivers good acceleration performance. Like the V6, you hear and feel it under full throttle, which is not a bad thing. It produces 240 horsepower and 280 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Reducing weight helps both engines: A magnesium transfer case, an aluminum/magnesium hood, an all-aluminum V8 and a V6 with aluminum heads all help to minimize the weight gain over the previous model.

The real star in the new Explorer drivetrain is the optional five-speed automatic. It's smooth and responsive, quickly downshifting when the gas is mashed, and upshifting late or early depending on what the driver is doing with the throttle. It's a great transmission and makes the engines look and feel strong. Called "maintenance free," the transmission doesn't even have a dipstick; it's sealed by the factory, and should not require service for 150,000 miles. Also new is a five-speed manual transmission that will be available in 2002 for V6 Explorers.

Turning around and maneuvering in crowded parking lots is easier in the new Explorer because its turning radius is slightly smaller (1.7 feet) than before (assuming you're turning left). I found the available reverse sensing system handy when maneuvering in tight quarters. Anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes provide good, stable stopping performance, without drama even at threshold braking (slamming the pedal to the floor and keeping it there until it stops). Electronic Brake Force Distribution is standard, a nice feature as it transfers braking force to the wheels with the best grip to reduce stopping distances. A foot or two can make a big difference in an emergency stopping situation on less than ideal pavement, and Ford claims the new Explorer offers a 15 percent decrease in stopping distances.

Final Word

Ford's 2002 Explorer is a vast improvement over the previous model in every respect. Whether it's the best vehicle in this crowded class is subject to debate, but it's a well-engineered vehicle. It handles well, rides smoothly and the interior packaging is well thought out and, for the most part, well executed.

Dodge Durango is the only other SUV in this class with third-row seating. We find the optional third rows in both of these vehicles to be uncomfortable. Regardless, the Explorer is the more refined of the two.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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