- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

It’s still king of the hill.

The Ford Explorer, the longtime sales leader in the mid-size sport utility vehicle segment, remains atop the competition, even as the going gets tougher.

America’s most popular SUV has refined some of its optional features while continuing to offer up to seven-passenger seating in a versatile, all-purpose vehicle that can tow up to 7,100 pounds.

Among the option updates, available on more Explorer models, are stability control, second-row bucket seats and auxiliary climate control.

Despite its SUV character, the Explorer is easy to dress up, or down.

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price for a base 2004 Explorer is $27,245 for an XLS 4X2 model with V6.

But the test vehicle, an XLT 4X2 with V8, leather-trimmed seats and 10 other options, was priced at more than $35,000, and the top Explorer Limited with several factory options can be more than $41,000.

The Explorer ranked as the fifth most popular vehicle in the United States last year and was the only SUV in the top 10.

It’s not that the Explorer is old. While it debuted in 1990, the Explorer has been steadily updated and improved over the years.

Its last major redesign was for the 2002 model year, when the vehicle received an independent rear suspension, among other things.

This suspension updated the ride considerably, removing some of the truckish character that had been in earlier Explorers and replacing it with a more compliant ride.

The change is immediately noticeable to anyone who spent time in earlier Explorers. Though, there’s still a bounciness at times when it travels over poor road surfaces.

Riding over smoother pavement brings a nicer ride where I could tell the suspension was managing the bumps below but not letting much beyond mild vibrations come through to passengers.

The test vehicle rode on 16-inch Michelin tires and had a stable, almost heavy feel with the uplevel V8 engine fitted under the hood.

Indeed, in slower-speed slalom maneuvers, this Explorer, with optional AdvanceTrac stability control system on board, handled directional changes well.

There was body sway, as expected in such a tall-riding vehicle.

The Explorer has a style that’s easy for consumers to like. This SUV is not as showy as a big-grilled Cadillac Escalade nor as in-your-face as the military-style Hummers.

The Explorer isn’t boring, either.

In fact, I was struck at how sizable this SUV appears to be, regardless of whether you’re walking up to its tall front hood or looking down on other vehicles from the driver’s seat.

In the Explorer, I not only saw clearly over a passenger car in front of me, but I also towered over small pickup trucks.

The climb up into the vehicle is substantial, so I was glad to have, for $450, the optional running boards to give me a convenient step.

The look inside is mostly functional, and the plastic accent pieces with fake tweed design on the test Explorer looked cheap, even if they helped break up the large amount of beige plastic dashboard.

The 239-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 produces ready power ? 282 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm ? and has confident sounds that come through to passengers any time the Explorer is accelerating.

I merged into traffic easily, but in mostly city driving, I managed only 12.9 miles a gallon.

The federal government’s rating for this Explorer is 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.

The base engine is a 210-horsepower, 4-liter V-6 with 254 foot-pounds of torque at 3,700 rpm.

The Explorer is available with two or three rows of seats.

Both configurations fit into one wheelbase size ? 113.8 inches.

I found that the carpeted floor hump that’s at the front of the Explorer’s third-row seat makes it necessary to place your feet and legs forward in a less comfortable position than I’d like. And riders way back there sit close to the floor with knees up high.

Additionally, there wasn’t much clearance for me in the test vehicle to work the seat levers to get the second-row seats folded and out of the way. I nearly jammed a finger the first time I tried.

The Explorer’s cargo space behind the third row seat is rather narrow and totals 13.8 cubic feet, about what you’d find in some smaller car trunks.

The Explorer draws a wide array of buyers general demographics show.

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