- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

Multitasking often gets a bad rap, and for good reason. Who among us has not wanted to chuck a ripe tomato at the person who is driving while simultaneously (choose your favorite) blathering on a cell phone, feeding his face or messing with her hair or makeup?

By contrast, multitasking in vehicles is usually good. Witness the Explorer Sport Trac. From the nose to the passenger compartment, it’s all Explorer — Ford’s top-selling SUV. But, the four-door cab is matched with a pickup truck bed. The box is the bright idea here. It’s just 41/2 feet long, but that is just long enough to be useful.

And equally important, it’s short enough to be practical. Even with a full-size cab, the compact bed allows the Sport Trac to stay a reasonable size. Its 171/2 foot length means in real-world terms that the truck can maneuver easily in tight quarters and be parked without need for a tugboat.

The short box has utility that belies its size. The inside walls are notched, which allows you to put a pair of 2-by-4s across the span, for tiered storage.

With tailgate extended, the bed is big enough to hold the benchmark, 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood. Three cargo bins are recessed into the floor (two small, one large). They’re covered with weather-resistant lids and fitted with drain plugs, so they make a good spot to stash wet gear or ice down your favorite beverage. More options, more versatility.

A cargo cage ($195) pivots out on the end of the louvered tailgate, effectively expanding its usable length. An available hard tonneau cover ($595) turns the box into a long, lockable storage bin.

Up front, it’s an Explorer cabin, sized so that 6-footers can fit (just) in back, with like-size people up front. The interior is comfortable, functional and can be equipped with as much electronics and entertainment gear as your taste and budget allows. The test drive truck was a Limited series 4x4, with a base sticker price of $30,235. Among the big ticket options added to that were a navigation system ($2,505) and a rear-seat entertainment system ($1,295).

Sport Trac’s hybrid body sits on a stretched Explorer chassis, with a wheelbase extended 16.8 inches. This year, the Sport Trac adopts the same tube-through-frame design found in Ford F-150 pickups.

The new chassis design is dramatically stiffer — more than 400 percent, compared with the previous model — which pays dividends in more stable handling and fewer squeaks and rattles. In addition to Ford’s standard 4.0 liter V-6 with five-speed automatic transmission, the new Sport Trac can be had with an available 4.6-liter V-8.

Linked to a six-speed automatic, the V-8 makes 292 horsepower. Towing capacity is 5,310 pounds for the V-6, 6,800 pounds for the V-8. The V-8-equipped test truck had plenty of power and the engine made a nice match with the six-speed transmission. Of course, you pay for your power at the pumps. EPA rates the V-8 Sport Trac 4x4 and I posted 15 miles per gallon in mixed driving with a brand new (400 miles) engine. However, the V-6 is only a slosh better on gas (15/20, according to EPA). Given the whopping power difference (the V-8 has 82 more horsepower and 46 more foot-pounds of torque than the V-6), my guess is that most buyers will step up to the V-8.

Sport Trac’s versatility is really its drawing card. The cabin is big enough to fit four or five persons, the chassis is 4x4 capable and rugged enough for off-road. And, the convertible box in back is just plain handy for all those occasions in life when you really need a pickup truck. Fair warning. Sport Trac’s versatility could have an unwanted effect on your popularity. Owners can bank on frequent calls from friends and family, and extra runs to the home supply store.

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