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Pros: Standout styling; SYNC communications; power-folding third-row seat; reasonable fuel economy for its size; class-leading towing

Cons: V8 engine could use more horsepower; no MyTouch or Sony audio option as on Explorer and Edge

The 2012 Ford Expedition is one of a number of full-size SUVs that can accommodate up to eight passengers, tow massive amounts of weight and suck down fuel like there's no tomorrow. They may not be as popular as they once were, but there is still a need for a vehicle like the Expedition and its rivals.

It can be a puzzle for consumers to figure out just what distinguishes one gargantuan SUV from another. In the Expedition's case, it isn't what it can do as much as how it does it. Take the Expedition's third-row seat, for example. When not needed, a simple push of a button folds the available power-folding third-row seat flat into the floor, creating a clean, level cargo area. To achieve the same goal in the Chevrolet Tahoe, you have to haul the seats out of the vehicle and store them. Then there's the matter of conveniences. Ford provides a wide array of interior colors and seating options plus forward-thinking electronics such as the SYNC voice-activated communication system.

For those who need Chevrolet Suburban-size family room, the EL trim extends the Expedition's rear cargo space by an additional 15 inches behind the third-row seat. And, although it's true that the Expedition has the least powerful V8 engine in the segment, it has a class-leading tow rating of 9200 pounds.

Comfort & Utility

Comfort and utility needs are the Expedition's strong suit. Ford puts lots of padding on the Expedition's seats so long journeys are not cause for discomfort, and there are enough electronic add-ons to keep the kids busy for weeks. In addition to an available rear-seat DVD entertainment system, there is a 110-volt outlet for plugging in laptops or video games and a 340-watt audio system linked to the SYNC communications system.

With options and features spread over two models (base and EL) and four trims (XL, XLT, Limited and King Ranch), the Expedition trumps the competition in configuration possibilities. Cargo space is abundant, especially with the power folding third-row seat lowered. When the seat is in place, the Expedition offers more headroom and legroom for its third-row passengers than the Chevrolet Tahoe, the Toyota Sequoia or the Nissan Armada. Ford's Limited and King Ranch models include heated second-row seats, heated and cooled front seats and available second-row captain's chair seating.

The exterior makes the Expedition a favorite for us. Ford offers some great paint colors, and the additional chrome and contrasting side cladding on the King Ranch reminds us of the highly stylized American cars of the 1950s and 1960s. It's tastefully done and unique to Ford.

Technology

Although not as tech-savvy as some of Ford's newer crossovers, the big Expedition still has its share of 21st-century gadgetry. In addition to the voice-activated SYNC communications system for the control of cell phone and iPod, the Expedition offers voice-activated navigation, HD and satellite radio, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and a rear backup camera.

Additional features include keypad-controlled locking and unlocking, rain-sensing wipers, sonar-based reverse sensing system and front park assist, a power rear liftgate, power adjustable foot pedals, and the MyKey programmable key fob, which includes an earlier low fuel warning light and allows parents to set limits on the Edge's top speed (80 mph) and radio volume.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Both the Expedition and the Expedition EL are powered by a 5.4-liter V8 engine that makes 310 horsepower and 365 lb-ft of torque. Although not nearly as powerful as the V8 engines found in the Sequoia and Armada, the Expedition's V8 still has more than enough muscle to move a full complement of people and gear without worry. Fuel economy figures of 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway are near the upper end of the range, with the Tahoe beating the Expedition by 1 mpg. All-wheel-drive models are rated at 12/17 mpg. The Expedition's V8 engine is also E85 compatible.

Safety

Ford equips every Expedition with its Safety Canopy System, which includes front, front side-impact and three-row side curtain airbags. A rollover sensor can activate the side and curtain airbags even if there is no collision involved. AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control serves to help keep the vehicle from veering off course when skidding or plowing, while electronic traction control helps keep the tires from slipping on ice or wet pavement. For those who do a great deal of towing, the standard Trailer Sway Control can help keep items behind the vehicle stable through selective wheel braking and reduced engine power.

Driving Impressions

That a full-size SUV rides and handles as well as the Expedition is a testament to just how far electronic traction and stability control have advanced. The Expedition is no sports car, but it doesn't wallow and lean the way older SUVs of the 1980s and 1990s used to. Part of the improvement can be credited to the Expedition's independent rear suspension, a design that allows the two rear wheels to move up and down independently. Additional credit is due to the available auto-leveling rear suspension that helps minimize rear-end sag.

On the road, the Expedition's steering feel is heavy but not laboriously so. The ride is smooth and the cabin quiet, but if you catch a strong crosswind, you'll have to hold on to the steering wheel or make quick course corrections.

In city driving, the Expedition is at is worst. Its huge size is not conducive to small parking spaces or tight parallel-parking maneuvers, although the sonar sensors, rear backup camera and integrated blind-zone mirrors all greatly aid in the docking effort.

Other Cars to Consider

Chevrolet Tahoe - The Tahoe has slightly more power and gets slightly better fuel economy than the Expedition, but its rear seats don't fold flush into the floor and don't offer as much legroom.

Nissan Armada - The Armada has a much more powerful V8 engine, but its resale and fuel economy figures lag behind the Expedition, and it doesn't offer an extended model.

Toyota Sequoia - The Sequoia offers two V8 engine options and has better resale value than the Expedition. But the Expedition can tow more weight, offers more creature comforts, and has a lower base price than the Sequoia.

AutoTrader Recommends

While we love the rich interior and elegant exterior afforded by the King Ranch trim, we know the $50,000-plus price tag it carries won't fit into most family budgets. For this reason, we think a nicely equipped XLT is the best choice. The fuel economy on the 2WD models is acceptable, and you can add on most necessary options without pushing past the $45,000 mark.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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