Introduction

Sure, sport utilities can carry cargo, but what do you do when you need to haul a load of lumber or a pile of dirt? Compact pickups can do that, but who are you going to call when it's time to take the whole family out? The Ford Explorer Sport Trac can handle either of these tasks.

Sport Trac is an SUV with a pickup bed. It has an outdoorsman's interior designed for easy cleaning and a bed made of a nearly impervious composite material. Yet Sport Trac can carry a family of five in comfort.

As its name implies, the Explorer Sport Trac is based on the Ford Explorer, the best selling sport-utility in America. Sport Trac is based on the previous-generation Explorer, however, so it does not benefit from the 2003 Explorer's independent rear suspension and other advances. But Ford has enhanced Sport Trac's safety systems for 2003. Four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS come standard. Seat belts are now height-adjustable and are fitted with pre-tensioners.

Ford's new Safety Canopy side-curtain air bag system with rollover sensors is available for 2003 Sport Tracs (except early models). Safety Canopy air bags offer head protection in a side impact and remain inflated longer than conventional air bags, helping prevent occupants from being ejected in a rollover.

Model Lineup

Ford revised the Sport Trac lineup for 2003. New XLS, XLT, and XLT Premium models replace the previous Value, Choice, and Premium trim levels.

All come standard with rear-wheel drive (2WD), with four-wheel drive ($2770) as an option. A 4.0-liter V6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission come standard on all Explorer Sport Tracs. XLS buyers, however, can opt for a five-speed manual for a $435 credit.

XLS ($22,790) base-level trim packs a long list of standard equipment, including second-generation air bags, air conditioning, four-speaker CD stereo, bucket seats and center console, privacy glass, tachometer, Securilock anti-theft system, intermittent wipers, a four-pin trailer-tow harness, gas-pressure shock absorbers and P235/70R16 white-outline tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels.

XLT ($24,115) adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel with tilt, remote keyless entry with keypad, cruise control, power mirrors with security approach lamps, Berber floor mats, premium sound, and body-color rather than black door handles.

XLT Premium ($25,960) adds a six-way power driver's seat, power lumbar support for driver and passenger, an upgraded console between the seats and another console overhead, fog lamps, step bars, front tow hooks, and 225/70R16 all-terrain tires on bright aluminum wheels.

The Premium Sport Group ($700) adds XLT Premium's wheels, tires, fog lamps, step bars and tow hooks to XLT and XLS Sport Tracs. Other options include a limited slip rear differential ($355) for the standard 3.73- or heavy-towing 4.10-ratio axle. A cargo cage ($195) and hard tonneau cover ($590) are available. XLT and XLT Premium buyers can choose a Pioneer stereo with six-CD changer ($510), and a power moonroof ($800).

Adrenaline ($25,410) is a limited-edition model featuring full XLT trim plus a 485-watt, nine-speaker Pioneer sound system that includes an eight-inch, foamed-cone sub-woofer in a custom 11.5-liter enclosure. The system plays cassettes and CDs through a four-channel bridgeable amplifier. You'll be able to spot an Adrenaline Sport Trac by its limited paint colors, fog lights, tow hooks, step bars, and five-spoke Thumbprint wheels shod with Goodyear Wrangler RT/S 255/70R16 off-road tires.

Walkaround

Ford Explorer Sport Trac has a rugged, utilitarian look with chunky cladding trimming the lower portions of its bulging body. Sport Trac looks like a box, twice over. First comes the five-seat cabin, and then the bed trailing behind, like a separate unit. The bed walls are nearly 20 inches high. The overall effect is high and bulky.

The cargo bed is just over four feet long and made entirely of a seemingly indestructible composite material, so it does not need a liner and won't rust. Ford engineers say they dragged cinder blocks over it and threw in steel pipes and heavy angle iron without causing any appreciable damage. Any marring or scratching blends in with the black grained finish, anyway. Ten winged cargo hooks are sturdily mounted on the top rails of the bed, six on the outside and four on the inside; there's also a waterproof 12-volt power source in the cargo area, useful for power tools and even refrigerators.

The optional cargo cage/bed extender ($195) is a hinged, stainless-steel tube-frame that flips back to the edge of the dropped tailgate, increasing the bed length to 72 inches. It can be a useful device, but won't hold back dirt or other loose material. When flipped inside the bed, the bed extender creates a compartment 25 by 45 inches that can keep grocery bags and keep other small items from sliding around. It's removable, but much fiddling to get it out and back in. A more simple, plastic bed divider is also available along with a lightweight, lockable two-piece hard tonneau cover.

The standard roof rack consists of just two longitudinal bars, with the crossbars sold as an accessory. You'll need the crossbars if you want to carry anything up there. When we loaded a nine-foot-long duffel bag full of sailing gear, we had to lay it directly on top of the paintwork.

Interior Features

Sport Trac's cabin is designed to be durable. Door panels are resilient plastic. Flooring is made of a textured composite rubber easily swept with a whisk broom or cleaned with water. Ford says it also reduces noise. Cloth is found only on the seats and headliner. The rest is ready for mud.

The front bucket seats have been upgraded for 2003. We found last year's seats nicely contoured and quite comfortable. Ford has changed the interior colors for 2003. We weren't crazy about the looks of last year's dark brown gabardine upholstery, although it appeared easy to clean.

The rear seats are roomy. Rear legroom is ample at 37.8 inches, a full seven inches more than in the Nissan Frontier crew cab pickup. The rear seats split 60/40 and fold down without having to remove the headrests, quickly expanding cargo space inside the cabin. The back seat incorporates three child seat tether anchors.

The center console provides big fixed cup holders in front, forward of the armrest, along with a little slot good for coins and tickets. Forward of that is another tray with two more slots, one of them fairly large.

A removable nylon pack under the center armrest enables Sport Trac drivers to carry their console contents with them. It even has a shoulder strap. But we found it more awkward to use in the vehicle than a fixed, rigid compartment. We rarely used it, because we didn't want to deal with first raising the armrest, then lifting the limp material top secured by Velcro.

The parking brake requires a long reach to release, which we found irritating.

Comfort Group ($1230) for the XLT adds six-way power for the driver's seat and power lumbar support for both driver and passenger; plus a deluxe floor console with auxiliary rear-seat climate and audio controls; an overhead console with map lights, a digital compass and an outside temperature gauge; automatic headlights; and an electrochromic rear-view mirror. The compass and outside temperature gauge are highly useful and appreciated tools that more carmakers should fit in their vehicles, especially any vehicle that may head into the backcountry.

The leather seating option ($655) for the XLT now includes electric heat and six-way power and adjustable lumbar support for both driver and passenger.

A power rear window slides up and down, which the kids in the back seat will love. Besides providing flow-through ventilation, it allows rear-seat passengers to reach through and grab things out of the bed, such as drinks from a cooler.

Driving Impressions

Explorer Sport Trac is powered by Ford's 210-horsepower 4.0-liter V6. It's a sophisticated engine, with overhead cams, an aluminum head and aluminum pistons. It likes to rev, and it's smooth, responsive and great fun at speed.

For 2003, Ford increased its torque rating slightly (from 237 foot-pounds to 240), but more important the peak torque comes at 3000 rpm instead of 3750 rpm. More power at lower rpm should make the Sport Trac more responsive around town and pulling away from a stop. The revised power curve should also put more snap in the Sport Trac's throttle response at highway speeds. At 75 mph, last year's model loafed at a mere 2650 rpm.

The optional 4.10 ratio should improve acceleration performance and towing performance, but at the expense of gas mileage because the engine will be revving higher at any given speed.

Sport Trac comes with a five-speed automatic that matches the engine for smoothness and sophistication. More gears usually means closer ratios. So we were surprised by how far the tach needle jumped when the transmission kicked down on the 2002 model. While passing on an uphill grade at 70 mph, the transmission downshifted from fourth to third, and the engine revved to 5000 rpm. When it upshited again it dropped back to 3500 rpm. Presumably, Ford tuned the transmission to allow the V6 to rev high and make power.

The four-wheel-drive system is electronically controlled and can be shifted on the fly between two- and four-wheel drive. A low-range mode is ready for heavy snow, deep mud or soft sand.

To make the Sport Trac, Ford lengthened the previous-generation Explorer's frame more than 14 inches, to 206 inches on a 126-inch wheelbase. Lateral stiffness is increased with a tubular crossmember and thicker side rails. Urethane body mounts smooth out the ride. Sport Trac doesn't ride as smoothly as the newest generation Explorer, however, which boasts an independent rear suspension and many other improvements.

The Explorer suspension was retuned to offer better off-road performance. It works well off the highway, in light snow and mud, but we wouldn't call this a highly capable off-road vehicle. Payload is 1,500 pounds, with a 5,300-pound maximum towing capacity for two-wheel-drive models. Towing heavy loads frequently will likely put wear on a Sport Trac.

Sport Trac is quite tall, so it doesn't handle like a car. The bushings, spring rates, shock valving and stabilizer bars have been modified, according to Ford, for improved ride, handling, and isolation over the old Explorer. Still, the Sport Trac pitches, weaves, sways and jounces. It's not uncomfortable, but these ride motions grow larger as the road gets rougher or as speed increases. The power rack-and-pinion steering did not provide as much assist as we would have liked for parallel parking in tight spaces.

But the Sport Trac is quiet. A lot of effort went into reducing the noise level in the cabin, successfully.

The Sport Trac comes with bigger brake rotors than the previous-generation Explorer, using ventilated discs in front and, for 2003, solid discs in the rear. We found the disc/drum brakes on our 2002 test model only okay, but expect that the 2003 model would stop better with its new four-wheel-disc setup. Also, disc brakes resist fade better than drum brakes, good when braking frequently down mountain grades.

Summary

Ford Explorer Sport Trac is an innovative design packed with small refinements that make life more convenient, both in town and in the backcountry. Its willing engine, solid frame, and well-engineered body make Explorer Sport Trac an impressive sport-utility truck.

 


Model Line Overview

Model lineup: 4x2: XLS ($22,790); XLT ($24,115); Adrenaline ($25,410); XLT Premium ($25,960); 4x4: XLS ($25,560); XLT ($26,885); Adrenaline ($28,180); XLT Premium ($28,730)
Engines: 210-hp, 4.0-liter SOHC 12-valveV6
Transmissions: five-speed automatic, five-speed manual
Safety equipment (standard): dual front airbags, front seat-belt pre-tensioners, ABS
Safety equipment (optional): Safety Canopy side-curtain air bags
Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in: Louisville, Kentucky

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Sport Trac XLT 4x4 ($26,885)
Standard equipment: air conditioning; automatic transmission; power door locks with autolock and remote keyless entry; cruise control; tilt steering column; leather-wrapped steering wheel; dome, map and cargo lights; black molded composite material floor covering with color-keyed Berber floor mats; dual covered visor vanity mirrors; color-keyed lower body moldings; two power outlets; AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo with four speakers; 60/40 fold/flat rear bench seat; skid plate (4WD); front and rear stabilizer bars; power steering; tachometer; electric shift-on-the-fly transfer case (4WD); aluminum wheels, power windows with driver-side express down; power rear window; speed-sensitive intermittent wipers; trailer wiring harness
Options as tested (MSRP): Cloth Comfort Group ($1230) includes cloth front bucket seats with six-way power driver seat, driver and passenger lumbar adjustment, high-series floor console with rear climate and audio controls, overhead console with outside temperature display and compass; cargo cage ($195)
Destination charge: ($625)
Gas guzzler tax: N/A
Price as tested (MSRP): $28,935
Layout: four-wheel drive
Engine: 4.0 liter SOHC 12-valve V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 210 @ 5200
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 240 @ 3000
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 15/20 mpg
Wheelbase: 125.9 in.
Length/width/height: 205.9/71.8/70.4 in.
Track, f/r: 58.5/58.3 in.
Turning circle: 43.1 ft.
Seating capacity: 5
Head/hip/leg room, f: 39.4/53.0/42.4 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r: 38.7/52.7/37.8 in.
Trunk volume: 29.6 cu. ft.
Payload: N/A
Towing capacity: 5080 Lbs.
Suspension, f: independent with gas shocks, torsion bar springs and stabilizer bar
Suspension, r: live axle with gas shocks, variable-rate leaf springs, stabilizer bar
Ground clearance: 6.7 in.
Curb weight: 4342 lbs.
Tires: P235/70R16
Brakes, f/r: disc/disc with ABS
Fuel capacity: 22.5 gal.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of May 20, 2002.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-392-FORD - www.fordvehicles.com

Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive, Inc.


 

New Car Test Drive

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

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