|When you mess with a winner, you must be very, very careful, and that's what Ford was when they redesigned the Explorer, America's favorite midsize sport utility for the last 15 years in a row. |
By careful we don't mean conservative, either. By careful, we mean Ford spent serious effort dotting the i's and crossing the t's, looking after the details that make all the difference. At the same time, Ford realigned the models and overhauled the pricing structure, giving customers more truck for less money, nearly $4,000 less in some cases.
The new Explorer is available with a V6 or V8. It's a traditional midsize SUV with body-on-frame construction, and competes against the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, and Nissan Pathfinder.
We were well pleased with the new steering, the new suspension, and the new brakes used on the 2006 model, all of which have improved by at least one order of magnitude. The new 2006 Explorer is quieter than last year's model and it rides better. It also leans less in corners and the brakes are more responsive. The rear seats fold flatter than on last year's models and the interior has been improved throughout.
|The Explorer lineup from bottom to top includes the XLS ($27,175), XLT ($28,870), XLT Sport ($30,845), Eddie Bauer ($30,845), and Limited ($33,160), with all prices reflecting the inclusion of the $645 destination and delivery charges. Ford is quick to point out that these suggested retail prices are from $675 to $3,900 lower than those for comparably equipped 2005 models, which don't benefit from all the improvements for 2006. The average price reduction is $1,750. |
Standard equipment on the XLS includes the 4.0-liter V6 engine and five-speed automatic, Roll Stability Control (RSC), independent rear suspension, keyless entry, cruise control, message center, compass and thermometer, power windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning, a floor console, rear vent windows and added 12-volt power point, a cargo management system, AM/FM stereo with single CD or MP3 player, driver manual lumbar adjuster, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
XLT adds a chrome grille, unique bumper and trim, power seat, fog lamps, puddle lamps, 16-inch tires and wheels, an overhead console and additional storage.
The Eddie Bauer version adds yet another grille design, running boards, roof rails, 17-inch wheels and tires, more wood and leather, 10-way power seat, message center and trip computer, and remote keyless entry. The Eddie Bauer is now split into two models, one with the luxury package added in and one without. The Luxury Package on the Eddie Bauer adds $1700, an audiophile sound system, six-disc changer, steering wheel controls, power passenger seat, heated power mirrors, and puddle lamps.
Limited adds its own four-bar grille, 17-inch tires and wheels, monochromatic appearance package, heated seats with memory, still more wood and more leather and a few more small amenities.
Each model offers seat configurations for five, six or seven passengers. The five-seater gains a flat load floor behind the second row of folding seats. The six-seater features four captain's chairs in the first two rows and a folding 50/50 split third seat. The seven-seater gets a folding 60/40 bench seat in the second row in lieu of the cushy bucket seats.
Each model also offers a choice of rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, the latter with a four-position dashboard switch for 4H, N, 4WD, 4WD LOW, and 4WD Auto.
Options include all-wheel drive ($2,225); the V8 package ($1,200); a DVD system ($1,295); power folding third-row seats ($1,340); quad bucket seat package ($795); third-row seat ($845); memory pedals ($350); and rear air conditioning ($650). Sirius Satellite Radio will be offered late in the model year. DVD-based navigation is also available for about $1,500.
The standard safety package includes the automatic all-wheel-drive system and roll stability control, a system already in use at Volvo and Land Rover, that intervenes with throttle and brakes when the vehicle senses an impending tipover situation. Seat side air bags, an new adaptive energy-absorbing steering column, a passenger classifier in the seat, and the TPMS. Ford says this truck meets all known future safety standard for front and side crash through 2010.
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|The new 2006 Ford Explorer looks like the F-150 pickup in front, with finer, scaled-down features. There are four different grilles to distinguish the various models. |
The combination of more chrome, bigger and bolder lamps and the new square-cornered aero mirrors make it look more like a Lexus SUV than a Ford, and we mean that in the most complimentary way. They don't want you to mistake it, though, so every 2006 Explorer badge is about twice as big and twice as thick as those on 2005 models.
Between the elaborate headlamps and the revamped rear lamps, it's a big, empty box with five large doors and a whole bunch of space inside. With the V8 engine, the new Explorer is rated to tow up to a whopping 7,300 pounds. And it's rated to carry up to 1,500 pounds of payload.
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|Everything inside the Explorer is new for 2006. Every switch, button, face, texture and panel of the interior has been changed, changed to a much more modern, crisper presentation, one of Ford design boss J Mays's personal design campaigns brought to life. There is a dark wood for most models and darker, richer wood for the Eddie Bauer version. The graphics are accented with metal surrounds both shiny and matte, depending. On the downside, we saw a fair amount of glare reflected off the dash top onto the windshield of the early models we drove. |
Second-row seats are available as a 60/40 split bench seat, a 60/40 split bench with recline and third-row access, or two bucket seats and a console. The bucket seats are more comfortable for adults, but the bench seats fold down better for cargo.
The third row, when ordered, sits almost two inches higher than before so kids can see out better. The third row is always a 50/50 split, but is available with manual or power folding and unfolding.
And now the floor really is completely flat when all the seats are folded, with almost no forward rise (2 degrees as opposed to 10 before). With three seats, you get 13.6, then 43.9, then 83.7 cubic feet of space as the seats fold down; the five-seater has slightly more room with the seats folded.
The DVD-based navigation system is very easy to use, with excellent colors and graphics, though the screen is on the small side.
Ford designers may have gone over the top on the front door armrests, the latch pull, and the opening handle. The armrest is very large and filled with foam to assist in side crash protection, with the chrome latch pull rounded around the leading edge, but the door handle is buried underneath it, where the human wrist cannot comfortably go. Otherwise, the new Explorer interior works very well.
The new seats are at once more supportive and more comfortable than the old, hard Explorer seats, the colors and trims and combinations are elegant and tasteful, the metallic trims just about right, not overdone.
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|Two new engines are available for the 2006 Ford Explorer. The 4.0-liter single-overhead-cam V6 has been retuned with variable valve timing and is rated at 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. The V8 is the traditional 4.6-liter single-overhead-cam V8, but now it has three valves per cylinder, two intake and one exhaust, for better breathing, 53 additional horsepower at 292, and 300 pound-feet of torque. |
With the V6, you get a five-speed overdrive automatic. With the V8, you get a brand new Ford-built six-speed automatic overdrive transmission with full electronic control of upshifting, downshifting and torque converter functions. Both powertrains are quiet and smooth. The lighter V6 is a bit easier to turn and maneuver, but both are very pleasant, competent and quiet rides.
Ford told us before we drove the truck that customers had demanded quieter operation from the new Explorer, so they have used the body-on-frame design to maximum advantage to quiet the truck down, isolate it from the road, and halt the transmission of noise and vibration. In this respect, Ford has done an exemplary job on the new truck. The AC system operates with 30 percent less noise yet moves and exchanges more air. Conversations are easily heard, the music sounds good, and the mirrors, with their new square corners defying aero logic, are mercifully quiet, as are the tires.
This is a big, heavy family truck with 15 years of continuous sales success and a few dark episodes behind it (involving previous-generation models), so they have utterly bathed it in safety equipment, from standard Roll Stability Control (also used in Volvo, Land Rover, and other Ford Truck products) to smart air bags to side air bags to an air curtain setup for the second and third rows. Ford says it expects a full house of five-star safety ratings, the highest possible, when the truck is tested.
The new steering on the 2006 Explorer has a much heftier feel at highway speeds with plenty of assist for parking. The new suspension is one of the most supple we've driven on any SUV in this big class. And the new brakes work much harder with much less pedal pressure and travel than before. Body roll is much better (the Explorer leans less in corners), and the general feeling of being planted on Earth is stronger on this new chassis. The new chassis is some 63-percent stiffer than before, and a stiff chassis is a key element for crisp handling and a smooth ride. This truck manages to be isolated from the road, but well connected to it, at the same time.
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