Best of the bigs. by Ray Thursby
For many years, General Motors has had the full-size four-door sport-utility market to itself. The Chevrolet/GMC Suburban, augmented in 1994 by the slightly smaller Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, were really the only choices for those who wanted a lots of interior space, heavy-duty towing capacity and, properly equipped, the capability of taking to the backwoods. The only other entry with similar size and capabilities was the warlike AM General Hummer.
The picture has changed now. With its new Expedition -- soon to be joined by a luxury Lincoln version called Navigator -- Ford has launched a serious bid for a share in a small (but growing, and lucrative) market.
The price of size and V-8 muscle, of course, is indifferent fuel economy, even in a class of vehicles known collectively for thirst. And with the Suburban, at least, garageability can be an issue. But with the world's lowest fuel prices, the mpg issue is offset for U.S. buyers by the appeal of generous interior volume, comfort and the security of being surrounded by lots of structure.
These are, obviously, big vehicles for big jobs. And unless you're planning to tow a bulldozer, the Expedition stacks up as the best of the bigs.
Expedition presents two familiar views to the world. From the front, it is a near-twin to the Ford F-150 pickup truck. The reason for the resemblance is simple: the Expedition is based on Ford's immensely popular truck -- the best-selling vehicle in the country 15 years running --sharing its chassis, drivetrains, suspensions, major interior components and front end body panels. We consider that a benefit, as the F-truck is a handsome, modern design with plenty of rugged hardware underneath.
From the side and rear, the Expedition bears a strong resemblance to the smaller Explorer. No surprise there, since Ford stylists found that the Explorer's looks scored well with both current and potential owners. No panels interchange between, however; the Expedition is larger in every dimension.
It is handsome, with a sloping hoodline and rounded front end that reflect an interest in aerodynamic design -- with reductions in wind noise that result -- and a move away from the monster truck image presented by previous bluff-fronted designs. The sides and back are shaped more for utility than style, though what are essentially flat panels are given some visual definition by clever use of trim and rounded corners.
The overwhelming impression is one of size, even though the design disguises the Expedition's bulk to some extent. At just over 17 feet in length, this is no wraith. The Suburban is even longer, adding a foot-and-a-half to the total. The Tahoe and Yukon four-doors are a bit shorter. Ford touts the shorter length as making its entry compatible with a standard garage, which the Suburban, they say, is not. Measure before you try to close the garage door.
As an aside to the size issue, we should note that the Tahoe and Yukon are also available as slightly smaller two-doors. Although it was designed to replace the old Bronco, which was two-door only, Ford elected to cede the full-size two-door market to GM.
Expeditions come in two flavors, XLT and Eddie Bauer. Both are available with two-wheel or four-wheel drive, and both carry a substantial load of standard equipment. Differences are confined to paint and trim, and even these distinctions can be blurred further by checking off items from a long list of optional equipment. And there's obviously a lot of price territory between the basic 2WD Expedition XLT and our loaded Eddie Bauer 4X4 tester.
The Inside Story
Here's where the big dimensions pay big dividends. Depending on seating configuration, the Expedition can carry five (front bucket seats, center bench), or six (front full-width seat, center bench) passengers, plus two more if the optional third seat is installed. Front and center occupants will be very comfortable in their well-padded chairs; the third seat is tricky to get into and will be distinctly tight for adults.
Ford's market researchers claim there is no demand for a bare bones vehicle in this class, so even the lower-priced XLT sports full carpeting, attractive color-keyed door and dash panels and amenities galore, including power windows, mirrors and door locks, air conditioning, a tilt steering wheel and a good -- if not quite symphonic -- audio system that will please many buyers. First- and second-row occupants get separate heat/vent/air conditioning controls, with a set for the third seat optional.
Visually, the Expedition interior is most appealing. The curved dashboard carries instruments and controls where they can be reached, and can be supplemented by a large center console that offers additional storage space and a place for those in front to rest their arms, and/or a roof-mounted center console that provides a holder for a garage-door opener and sunglasses. The Eddie Bauer roof console adds a digital display of the driver's choice of date/time, average fuel economy or compass, plus a switch for the power swing-out rear quarter windows.
Materials and finish quality are all first rate. Particularly noteworthy are the soft-touch coverings applied to switches (which are also internally lit at night, a nice touch) and door panels.
Ride and Drive
A first-time Expedition driver's initial impression is, inevitably, one of being surrounded by a lot of sheet metal. This is a big machine, requiring extra care in close-quarter maneuvering. But bulk doesn't make the Expedition difficult to drive. On the contrary; the speed-sensitive variable-assist steering keeps effort down to a reasonable level, and driver sightlines, augmented by big side mirrors, are excellent.
It is also a comfortable machine. The ride, while not as soft as that of a traditional family sedan or wagon, is good, and cornering roll and brake dive are effectively controlled. The 2WD version is slightly smoother on the highway thanks to its independent front suspension, but both 2WD and 4WD models are very good considering their size and weight. One advantage of a long wheelbase, apparent here, is a resistance to pitching over freeway expansion joints and similar irregularities.
Buyers of 4X4 examples can order four-wheel load leveling, a pneumatic system that compensates for varying loads while improving ride quality. Also part of the system is a one-inch increase in ride height, and a "kneel-down" facility that makes ingress and egress easier.
Two V-8 engine choices, 4.6 liters (standard) and 5.4 liters are available in the Expedition. They share basic architecture -- a cast-iron cylinder block with aluminum single overhead cam cylinder heads -- and differ only in capacity and power output. We prefer the optional engine, because it produces more torque at lower engine speed. Both versions are relatively quiet, and provide respectable acceleration. Both can tow good-sized loads -- 6100 pounds for the 4.6, up to 8000 with the 5.4 liter. Those capabilities are better than the Tahoe/Yukon, though certain Suburban powertrain combinations can raise the towing ante to 10,000 pounds, if that's a priority.
Like all of the brute utes, the Expedition's fuel consumption is on the high side.
On or off the highway, the Ford Expedition raises the stakes in its two-player segment. It is subjectively more comfortable and refined than its GM rivals, easier to maneuver, and has up-to-date styling inside and out. Ford has done its homework well, using rugged truck hardware where necessary, but overlaying the heavy-duty pieces with a veneer of civility that makes the big wagon more than acceptable for all-around use.
If you regularly carry a full load of passengers, pull a large trailer, or need a large vehicle to truck your family and its toys off on a camping vacation, the Expedition establishes new standards for its class.
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