The Ford pickup lineup looks plump right now, but there’s a gap that — at least from my armchair — wouldn’t be hard for Ford to fill.
We should all applaud Ford for their latest pickup, the compact Maverick. If demand during its first year is any indication, that model has been a resounding success. It’s not uncommon to see dealers asking more than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) on Autotrader for Maverick pickups that haven’t even been delivered to their showrooms yet.
What if Ford scaled up the Maverick concept to create a larger, heavier-duty crew-cab pickup that would still fit in a typical suburban garage and offer an improvement in towing capacity?
That’s a role the mid-size Ranger doesn’t exactly play. While the Ranger serves its purpose as a rugged truck to do battle with the Toyota Tacoma and Chevrolet Colorado, calling it a genuinely comfortable vehicle with a good ride is a definite stretch.
Ford’s own portfolio includes the impressive Explorer SUV, a model that would be a natural basis for a mid-size pickup truck with a decidedly SUV flair. Ford has even been down this road before, but the latest Explorer is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors regarding comfort, interior space, and flexibility.
The Ford Explorer Sport Trac
Just as Ford geared up to introduce a redesigned Explorer for 2002, the automaker in 2001 unveiled a new pickup truck that shared more than just its name with the ever-popular SUV.
The Explorer Sport Trac rode on a stretched version of the standard Explorer’s frame, and its styling was in line with the two-door Explorer Sport of the time. Inside, its dash was plucked directly from the Explorer parts bin, and it seated five passengers in typical SUV comfort.
Behind its cab, however, sat a roughly foot-foot composite bed with built-in tie-downs and an available “bed extender” that opened up an extra two feet of utility.
Oddly, Ford only offered the 4.0-liter V6 from the standard Explorer, rated at an unimpressive 210 horsepower but could be tied to either a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission.
Ford’s early expectations were mild; they offered only a handful of options. However, sales were strong enough that Ford kept the Explorer Sport Trac in its lineup until 2005 when it took a single-year hiatus before a 2007 redesign based on the standard Explorer they had updated a year earlier.
By then, the Explorer underpinnings were already five years old, but the Sport Trac was definitely an improvement inside and out. It retained body-on-frame construction rather than the unibody design of the recently-introduced Honda Ridgeline. That helped endow the Sport Trac with the ability to lug up to a 7,160-pound trailer when equipped with the newly optional V8 engine.
With 292 hp, that 5.4-liter V8 engine didn’t exactly light up the rear tires of this 4,600-pound pickup, but it was a noticeable improvement.
The second-generation Explorer Sport Trac measured 210 inches long, about four inches longer than its predecessor but more than a foot shorter than a Ford F-150 crew cab. The bed remained a little over four feet long, and it was again composed of a dent and rust-free composite.
Sport Trac round two benefitted from some worthwhile upgrades such as available side-impact airbags and power-adjustable pedals previously unavailable. It was even one of the first cars to get Ford’s then-ballyhooed Sync voice-controlled Bluetooth connectivity and Apple iPod adapter.
Though not exactly sporty as its name implied, the Sport Trac nonetheless drives pretty much like a slightly longer Explorer SUV. The fully independent suspension fitted to the second-gen model furnishes a fairly comfortable ride, and the V8 delivers good acceleration.
The second-generation model lasted through the 2010 model year but was not renewed when Ford redesigned the Explorer on a car-based platform for 2011.
First-generation Sport Trac trucks can be tough to find today, while the follow-up model commands a fairly strong residual value simply because nothing like it exists today. For instance, here’s a 2008 in base XLT tr5im with V6 power and 85,000 miles for $16,995. As equipped, it was only about $12,000 more than that when it rolled off the assembly line 14 years ago.
Envisioning a Sport Trac Reboot
How could today’s Explorer lend itself to a pickup configuration? It’s easy to imagine since Ford, Hyundai, and Honda have all taken SUVs, lopped off their cargo areas, and grafted on an open bed.
True, today’s Explorer is rated to lug a modest 5,600 pounds, but if Hyundai can squeeze an extra 2,000 pounds out of the Santa Fe to create the Santa Cruz pickup, Ford can probably do something similar.
Such a model would likely be sized on par with the Ranger crew cab, a model with a longer bed but the kind of cramped interior and busy ride quality that make it a compromised family hauler.
Hey, Ford: give it a try! See Ford Explorer Sport Trac models for sale