The world's best-selling SUV evolves back into a hybrid pickup.
by Sam Moses
Base Price (MSRP) $21,665
As Tested (MSRP) $28,010
The vision in Ford's crystal ball was sharp when it presented the Adrenalin concept vehicle at the Los Angeles Auto Show in January of 1996. The Adrenalin was the first prototype for the hybrid pickup/SUV genre-a new style pickup truck built with the full cabin of an SUV. The SUV, in turn, had been built on the platform of the old style pickup truck. This new invention in the vehicle world had not come full circle so much as around a tight S curve.
That's the purpose of concept vehicles: to toss out an idea and see if it floats into the reality of the future. When it does, the carmaker looks like it had seen it coming all along. And it has a jump on the market.
Ford Explorer Sport Trac is available in one trim level with a choice of two-wheel drive ($21,665) or four-wheel drive ($24,435).
The Sport Trac looks like a box because it is one. It actually may be less of a box than an SUV, but it's more square, twice over: first the five-seat cabin and then the bed, whose walls are nearly 20 inches high. Overall, it's high and bulky looking. Our test model was Harvest Gold, a light metallic shade which might work on the Explorer but didn't compliment the lines of the Sport Trac, and certainly did nothing to make it look rugged, which it is. The problem is not the basic shape, it's the styling; the Nissan Frontier Crew Cab five-passenger compact truck has very similar dimensions but looks way cool.
The Sport Trac frame has been lengthened by 14.5 inches over the Explorer, and its lateral stiffness has been increased by 40 percent, says Ford, by the addition of gussets, a new tubular crossmember, and thicker side rails. Urethane body mounts, replacing rubber, are used to smooth the ride.
Visually, the Sport Trac is not very smooth. It's a rugged, utilitarian look with chunky gray cladding along the sides, and bulges along the body. The standard roof rack consists of just two longitudinal bars, with the crossbars sold as an option, but they are necessary. The lack of crossbars severely limits the things you could otherwise easily strap on. We carried a nine-foot-long duffel bag full of sailing gear, and had to flop it right down on the roof.
The cargo bed is 50 inches long and made of a lightweight composite material, which serves as a bedliner. No less than 10 winged cargo hooks are sturdily mounted on the rails of the bed, six black ones on the outside and four on the inside; there's also a 12-volt power source in the cargo area, a wonderful small idea, useful for power tools and even refrigerators. There is an optional plastic bed divider, but more valuable is the optional bed extender, called a cargo cage, a hinged stainless steel tube frame that flips back to the edge of the dropped tailgate, increasing the bed length to 72 inches. When it's in position inside the bed, it creates a compartment 25 by 45 inches and can securely contain bags of groceries and keep other small cargo from sliding around. It's removable, but it takes too much fiddling to get it out and back in.
There's also an optional lockable hard tonneau cover, which is two-piece, foldable and lightweight.
We noticed two things immediately: it was a long reach to the emergency brake release, and the removable nylon pack under the center armrest was ... curious. It enables you to carry your console contents with you-it even has a shoulder strap-but it gives up function that would exist if it were fixed. It was awkward when in place, and as a result we never used the compartment because we didn't want to deal with first raising the armrest, then lifting a limp material top secured by Velcro.
Thankfully, Ford is also trying hard with the big-ticket engineering things, an area where the company excels. A lot of effort went into reducing the noise level in the cabin, successfully.
There are big fixed cupholders 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 big, so the inconvenience of the nylon console under the armrest isn't felt so much because you can almost get by without it.
Three other innovations go into the Good Idea department. The rubber flooring under the removable Berber carpet floormats is one of the things that offers enhanced sound insulation. The rear window slides up and down, with power-either slightly for flow-through ventilation or all the way down, which the kids in the back seat will love; plus, you can reach through to grab things out of the bed, such as drinks from a cooler. Last but definitely not least, the seatbelt warning dinger won't give up. The relatively pleasant chiming reminder will cease if you don't obey, but a moment later it will come back again and ring longer this time. Eventually you give in, as you should. Its persistence prevents you from getting away with those unbelted 10-minute drives.
We weren't crazy about the looks of the brown gabardine seats at first, but they kind of grew on us, though they remained dark (they also come in a lighter shade). They were quite comfortable, however, and the pattern and easy-cleaning material is original, at least. And although the digital compass (with outside temperature gauge) over the rearview mirror isn't quite original, it's a highly useful and appreciated tool that more carmakers should fit in their vehicles, in our opinion.
Importantly, the rear legroom is ample at 37.8 inches, a full seven inches more than the Frontier. The back seat also contains three child seat tether anchors, standard.
Ford's 4.0-liter SOHC V6 is a very sophisticated and nifty engine, with an aluminum head and pistons. It likes to rev, and it's smooth, responsive and great fun at speed. The 240 foot-pounds of torque come way up there at 4000 rpm, and 205 horsepower is produced at 5250 rpm, with redline at 6250. But that fun you're having at speed will have to come in the lower gears; at 75 mph the engine cruises at a mere 2650 rpm. That's with the standard 3.73 final drive rear axle ratio; a 4.10 is optional ($355), and would allow the engine to better do its thing, although at the expense of gas mileage.
We wish we could have had a boat along on this test, to tow in the mountains behind the Sport Trac. That's a reasonably likely situation for Sport Trac owners, who might find themselves working up a sweat. The total torque is certainly ample, so it's not as if the engine can't handle it, but because the maximum oomph comes so far up the powerband, hauling a load will take concentration on the part of the driver. And if that mountain road has curves you have to slow down for, the five-speed automatic will also be working up a sweat.
But it's a good thing we weren't hauling a load. As it was, the engine occasionally rattled very lightly for us, as if it needs a higher octane than 87. The timing is electronically variable, which is supposed to compensate.
With five speeds in the transmission, we were surprised by how far the tach needle jumped when the tranny kicked down, as more gears mean closer ratios. Once, we were hauling uphill on the freeway at 70, working around a semi-rig, and when the tranny kicked down, evidently from fourth to third, the rpm lunged to more than 5000, then back to 3500 when it upshifted again. But overall, the transmission matched the engine for smoothness and sophistication. You do get quality Ford engineering, here.
The Sport Trac is quite tall, so it doesn't handle like a sports car. There is some weave and pitch, sway and jounce. It's not heavy, but the rougher the road and the higher the speed, the stronger it gets. Once we accelerated full throttle along a bumpy freeway onramp, and got the feeling the suspension limits could be found if we tried hard enough. The bushings, spring rates, shock valving and stabilizer bars have been modified, according to Ford, for "improved ride, handling and noise/vibration/harshness" over the Explorer. A "more carlike ride." Which begs the question: What's wrong with the Explorer? Why should the truck have a more carlike ride than the SUV?
Tight parallel parking was a pain. The power rack-and-pinion steering did not provide as much assist as we would have liked in tight places.
The good-sized brakes, ventilated discs front and drums rear, slowed and stopped the Sport Trac okay, although we would have liked to check them with that boat behind us when we dragged them down our favorite steep one-mile hill. Ford boasts that the brakes meet federal passenger car safety brake requirements not mandated on trucks until 2003. Still, they lightly squealed, with gentle application at both high and low speeds: 70 mph and 10 mph.
If we listed all the flaws mentioned above, this review would sound terribly condemning. But if you listed all the practical innovations and solid strengths - the engine, frame, chassis and body, for example-it would look very impressive. The Explorer isn't the most popular SUV for nothing. There are currently four compact four-door SUV/pickups on the market: Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Nissan Frontier, Toyota Tacoma and Chevy S-10. Sport Trac might actually have the biggest effort behind it. A prospective buyer should look at all four.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.