Ford does trucks better than any other manufacturer selling vehicles in the USA. That is not my opinion, it is the opinion of you, the consumer who actually buys these vehicles. Two of the top ten best selling vehicles in the US have consistently been Ford trucks, the Ford F-150 pickup truck has topped the list as the best selling vehicle of any kind sold in America for the past 26 years. Then there's the Ford Explorer, often billed as the vehicle that created the SUV market. The Explorer has been the top selling SUV since it came out in 1990 as a '91 model. Nearly 5.5 million Explorers have been sold to date. It is hard to drive in traffic these days and not have a Ford Explorer somewhere in your field of view.
There are two distinct types of SUV's on the market these days. The first type is the true off-road vehicles with the ruggedness and ground clearance to allow you to safely forage off the highway and into the wilderness. These workhorses have all the capabilities and features to make your adventure a safe, fun experience. There are also glaring disadvantages with these types of vehicles. For one thing, their ruggedness makes them heavier and they often have lower gearing so they tend to burn more fuel. Another problem is that their higher ground clearance makes them hard for older people or people with infirmities to get in and out of them. They also tend to have a higher center of gravity which can make them less stable during emergency maneuvers.
Then there are the car-based SUVs (sometimes referred to as crossovers) that are actually car platforms with an SUV-like body mounted on them. Many of these vehicles have all-wheel drive and are fine for driving in adverse weather conditions. They have plenty of storage and utility built in, but because of the limited ground clearance and less rugged underpinnings, it is inadvisable to venture too far off-road.
The Ford Explorer falls into the first group. This is a true, truck-based SUV with separate body on frame construction along with enough ground clearance to allow you to traverse rutted dirt roads with ease. It is available with a rugged 4x4 drive system that includes an electronically controlled two-speed transfer case with locking center differential.
We had the opportunity to drive a group of pre-production 2006 Ford Explorers on a variety of roads and... well, non-roads in scenic upstate New York. When a manufacturer throws a press introduction for a new model, there are usually enough vehicles so that two journalists are able to share a vehicle for the day. In this case, we also had a very special additional passenger along for the ride. At first, I didn't recognize him and thought that he was a Ford executive looking for feedback. But my fellow journalist knew him and clued me in to who we were bouncing around in the back seat as we explored the back woods around Lake Placid. His name was J.D.(Dave) Power, the very same Dave Power who gave birth to J.D. Power and Associates, the global marketing information firm that conducts independent and unbiased surveys of customer satisfaction, product quality and buyer behavior.
We were driving along a rock strewn dirt road at a good clip and were amazed at how quiet and well behaved this vehicle was as the rocks and trees blurred by leaving a trail of billowing dust clouds in our wake. The new Explorer was so quiet and solid feeling that it prompted me to think that this man that we were tossing about in the back seat as we blasted through the backwoods was partly responsible for the performance capabilities and solid construction of today's crop of automobiles. I personally think that Dave Power has done as much for the extraordinary quality and customer satisfaction of today's vehicles as Ralph Nader did for vehicle safety.
When we found our way onto the paved roads, our XLT test vehicle seemed to be as smooth and quiet as any luxury car in recent memory (remember, this is a truck). The seats were very comfortable with a good driving position made possible by a 6-way power seat, tilt steering column and adjustable gas and brake pedals. True, the steering was not as sharp as some passenger cars I recently drove, but this was because tires that are suitable for off-roading necessarily have higher sidewalls than the low profile rubber usually found on vehicles meant only for on-pavement driving. Despite the added sidewall flex, the Explorer felt stable on the highway with excellent directional stability and smooth, direct steering control.
For 2006, Ford has made major changes to their star performer to insure its placement at the top of the sales chart for the foreseeable future. This is not a clean sheet design as one look at the side profile will tell you. It is obvious that Ford retained the basic body shell from the 2005 model, but that is where the similarity ends.
For one thing, there is an all-new chassis holding everything together. The new frame was designed to be a solid backbone for the 2006 Explorer with 63 percent more resistance to bending and 55 percent more resistance to twisting. This new-found stiffness provided a solid platform for Ford engineers to improve ride smoothness and steering precision. Complementing the new frame are new front and rear independent suspension systems. When you have a stiffer frame, you are able to use heavier springs without degrading ride quality. Because of these stiffer springs and other design changes to the suspension, handling and steering feel were able to be improved
Two revised engines power the Explorer for 2006. The V6 engine is a 4.0 liter Single Overhead Cam design that now achieves ULEV II emission status, which is the same standard met by the Escape Hybrid. This is as clean as it gets these days. Along with the 74 percent lower emissions, engineers were able to reduce noise and vibration, especially at idle. The V6 is coupled to a dynamically balanced 5-speed automatic transmission.
The optional V8 is the new 3 valve per cylinder 4.6 liter engine found in the Mustang GT. In this configuration, it is rated at 292 horsepower with 300 pound-feet of torque. This is a considerable improvement over the previous V8. This engine is coupled to a new 6-speed automatic transmission, a first in this class. This combination allows the Explorer to provide up to a 7,300 pound towing capacity.
The amount of work that was put into making the interior quiet is obvious as soon as you start driving the new Explorer. Ford says that the quiet extends to the second and third row seats as well. This allows you to carry on a conversation between all three rows in a normal tone of voice.
Just as in the new F-150 introduced last year, the interior of the new Explorer has moved upscale in refinement, style and comfort. The new dash is clean and easy to live with. The steering wheel has a nice meaty feel to it. All the materials used on the interior have a quality look and feel. A number of controls were repositioned for easier identification and use. For example, the transmission shifter has been moved to the console for the first time and the seat heater controls were moved to the center of the dash for easier accessibility.
The inside door pulls take some getting used to. They are mounted low on the door panel and are a bit hard to reach. I asked Ford about the unusual arrangement and they told me the reason for that placement was because the door panel was engineered to be able to meet more stringent side impact crashworthiness. There is a four inch thick foam block inserted in each door to protect the abdomen and lower torso in the event of a side impact so a large area of the inside door panel was marked off-limits for anything with structural components like a door pull. Ford changed the power window buttons to the push-pull variety which is being used by a number of other manufacturers these days. This is a good safety feature because it prevents children from accidentally stepping on a button and closing a window on themselves. The new door opener lever is a chrome paddle that curves around the front of the armrest It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you are familiar with it, it seems to fall easily to hand.
An SUV is all about carrying stuff along with people and the New Explorer is up to the task. The third row seat folds flat into the floor for added utility. There is an option that will allow the third row seat to be power operated for the first time in this class. The second row seat is available in three configurations depending on the passenger layout. Five passenger vehicles have a 60-40 split seat that folds flat for a completely flat load floor. In the 7 passenger layout, along with also folding flat, the second row seat will also recline. In the 6 passenger layout, the middle row has two bucket seats separated by a console and fold almost flat leaving about a ten degree incline.
New upscale options available on the Explorer include a GPS Navigation system, Leather seats with suede inserts and the power folding third row seat
There are a number of new standard safety features incorporated into every Explorer. These include:
- Front seat side air bags - this is a feature that is an option on many other vehicles in this class.
- Five-level front passenger sensing system - the computer can determine the size and weight of the person in the front passenger seat based on five categories: empty seat, a child in the seat, a small adult, medium adult and large adult.
- Front-Passenger Seat Adaptive Air Bag Tether - The tether restricts the size and shape of the airbag when necessary based on information from the passenger sensing system.
- Adaptive Air Bag Venting - This system controls the force of the airbag depending on the size of the occupant and the severity of the crash in order to provide the maximum amount of protection in various situations.
- Adaptive stroking steering column - Controls the amount and speed of deformation that the steering column will allow based on the force of the crash and the driver's seating position.
Side curtain air bags are only available as an option. They will deploy in certain side-impact collisions or if an impending rollover is detected. If a person is leaning against the glass when the curtain is deployed, there is a feature, called "roll-fold" that is designed to allow the deploying air bag to slip between the person and the glass as it inflates.
The 2006 Explorer arrives in dealer showrooms in the Fall of 2005 with pricing that starts $1,750 lower than the 2005 models. This is an important vehicle for Ford and, judging by the effort that Ford has put into the redesign, they are serious about keeping it at the top of the mid-sized SUV market.
I have to say that I was impressed by this new Explorer and am looking forward to getting a production model for a more extensive test drive when it becomes available. If you never plan to go off-road, the Explorer is probably overkill and you would be better off looking for a good crossover vehicle built from a car platform. If you like Ford, then the Ford Freestyle is a good choice for a car-based SUV. But if you want the ruggedness, off-road capability and the versatility that only a true SUV can provide, the new Explorer is hard to beat.