- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

MODEL: Ford Explorer
MILEAGE: 14 city, 19 highway

After last year's Firestone/ Bridgestone tire scandal, the image of the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle isn't quite as invincible as it once was.
But it didn't stop Ford from making the new, 2002 Explorer its best ever, with segment-leading safety features, first-ever third-row seating, more carlike ride, handling and amenities and a new V-8.
"For more than 10 years running, Explorer has been the best-selling SUV in the world," said Jim O'Connor, Ford Division president. "We're not resting on our laurels. The all-new Explorer continues to innovate."
Ford officials had been working for years on the next Explorer when the Firestone/Bridgestone tire problem became public last year. More than 160 deaths worldwide are linked to blowouts of the tires installed on earlier-model Ford Explorers. Ford and Firestone officials recalled more than 6.5 million tires as a result.
Buyers of the 2002 Explorer 4-Door, due in showrooms next month, will be able to get tires other than those from Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., said Dave Rodgers, vehicle dynamics supervisor at Ford.
But that's not the only safety-related improvement. For the first time, Explorer will offer side-curtain air bags to provide head protection during side crashes. They are a $495 option.
In the fall of this year, new sensors will be added to measure vehicle "lean" as well as lateral acceleration, helping to detect an imminent rollover. In these cases, the side curtains will deploy from the ceiling and remain inflated for up to 6 seconds longer than conventional frontal air bags to take into account the longer duration of rollover crashes.
No other sport utility vehicle on the market offers rollover air bags. The only SUV with inflatable head protection that deploys from the ceiling is BMW's X5.
For the first time, Explorer will be offered with an AdvanceTrac system that incorporates traction control and electronic stability control to help a driver maintain control.
Front bumpers on the new Explorer are lower so they don't override small vehicles in a crash, and brakes are improved.
Also for the first time, deployment of the Explorer's frontal air bags is modulated according to how close a driver is to the steering wheel, whether the driver and front-seat passenger are wearing safety belts, and other factors.
Still, the new Explorer does not offer a tire-pressure monitoring system. And the rider in the middle of the second-row seat only has a lap belt, not a three-point safety belt.
If you like the look of the current Explorer, you'll like the 2002 model. The two are so similar nearly identical in overall length I had to park the new one next to a 2001 model to clearly see the subtle styling changes.
Among the most obvious changes are wheels that are moved farther out to the corners, so there's less body overhang in front and rear. Standard wheels are bigger, too 16-inchers rather than last year's 15-inchers.
Headlights and taillights are larger, and the new Explorer is 2 inches wider than its predecessor.
The tailgate glass opens separately from the tailgate, and its lower lip is positioned so that it's about the same height as a grocery shopping cart.
Despite the refinements, though, the Explorer's overall look continues to convey what the Explorer has been all along a truck-based SUV, not some newfangled car-hybrid wagon.
But driving the 2002 Explorer, I swore that some car attributes are now there, too.
The Explorer just doesn't seem to bounce around as much. The body feels more solid and less prone to jiggling. The interior is quieter than before. And the vehicle feels more connected to the ground.
Ford got rid of the traditional SUV rear suspension that employed a solid rear axle and leaf springs and that forced both rear wheels to react together to road bumps. In its place, there's a new, more adaptable, independent rear suspension with short-arm/long-arm configuration and a new frame design that's made stiffer through hydroformed cross members.
The body is stiffened to better resist bending forces, and added sound insulation wards off much outside noise, save for wind noise at highway speeds and some tire noise.
Ford expects as many as 75 percent of Explorer buyers to opt for the $670 third-row seat. This feature can easily move the Explorer onto the shopping lists of folks who'd prefer not to drive a minivan but need seven-passenger seating.
I found that third-row to be usable even for someone my size 5 foot 4. Headroom of 39 inches back there is better than in the third row of Acura's MDX and even the Honda Odyssey and Chrysler minivans.
Sadly, there's no way to adjust the positioning of the second-row Explorer seats forward to improve the 34.8 inches of third-row legroom. The Honda and Chrysler minivans each provide more than 38 inches of third-row legroom.
The base engine in the Explorer continues as the 4-liter, single overhead cam V-6 that offers 210 horsepower. Engine tuning has improved torque from 240 foot-pounds at 3,250 rpm to 255 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm.
Mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, it quickly got the test Explorer up and running. I always had plenty of power to pass, even in mountain terrain, and the shifts were smooth. Ford notes that this new engine increases the Explorer's maximum towing capacity to a segment-leading 7,000 pounds.
But the Explorer V-8 sure gulps the gas. It's rated at just 14 mpg in the city, 19 mpg on the highway.
Despite all the improvements, Ford held the line on starting prices. The starting manufacturer's suggested retail price plus destination charge for a base, XLS 4X2 4-Door is $24,620 compared with $25,180 for a 2001 XLS 4X2 4-Door.

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