- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

If there’s one thing Ford knows, it’s how to design and build trucks.

That’s why the Ford F-Series pickup truck is the best-selling vehicle in the world, year after year.

It also likely is the reason that the truck-based Ford Explorer has been the top-selling sport utility vehicle for its entire 15 years of existence, with about 5.5 million sold in all, including 339,333 in 2004.

So it’s no surprise that the Ford people bravely expect that the 2006 Explorer will continue to be successful, despite the fact that its luster was tarnished somewhat in the first half of 2005 as customers shied away from truck-based SUVs in the face of escalating gasoline prices. Explorer sales fell by about 18 percent.

Part of the problem for truck-based SUVs is shifting values. In the new climate, the things that used to be considered virtues — heft, weight, a sturdy body and frame, towing capability and off-road prowess — now are regarded by some potential customers as liabilities.

The trend is toward lighter, more fuel-efficient car-based SUVs.When the first Explorer arrived on the scene in 1990, there wasn’t much in the way of competition. Jeep was the main SUV, and two-door vehicles were favored over their four-door counterparts.

Now, according to Ford’s researchers, there are 200 distinct car- and truck-based SUVs vying for consumer dollars. That means that the Explorer likely never again will be as wildly successful as it was in its earlier years. The customer pie, though growing, must be cut into ever thinner slices.

The last time the Explorer was redesigned was in 2002, when it received an independent rear suspension system to enhance its on-road ride and handling. It also got a fold-flat rear seat.

For 2006, it gets a new V-8 engine as well as all-new interior and exterior styling, following on Ford’s determination to make all of its trucks — starting with the F-150 — as classy inside as any luxury car. The Explorer’s exterior styling also has more of a family resemblance to the F-150.

Moreover, the new V-8 engine is virtually identical to the one that powers the 2005 and 2006 Mustang. So how can the Explorer go wrong? It resembles the F-150 and has the same power as the Mustang — currently Ford’s most successful vehicles.

The standard engine is a carryover from 2005. It is a 210-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6, which is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. The new V-8 delivers 292 horsepower from 4.6 liters, and gets the power to the pavement through a six-speed automatic. The EPA fuel consumption rating is 14 miles to the gallon city and 20 on the highway.

There are four Explorer models, starting with the XLS, which comes standard with Ford’s AdvanceTrac roll stability control, side air bags, a tire-pressure monitor, remote locking, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, air conditioning and an audio system with a CD player and MP3 capability.

Up a notch is the XLT, which adds aluminum wheels, a power driver’s seat, fog lights and premium cloth seats. Next is the Eddie Bauer version, with 17-inch aluminum wheels, fog lights and a number of appearance items.

The test Explorer was the top-of-the-line Limited, which had a base price of $36,585. With options that included the V-8 engine, chrome wheels, leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, and heated seats and outside mirrors, the suggested sticker price came to $44,425.

Ford’s emphasis on interiors is not misplaced. Despite the fact that exterior styling is important in initial decision-making, the passenger pod is where owners spend most of their time.

Two things stand out in the new Explorer Limited: the classy dashboard design and quality materials, including wood trim, and the hushed ambience. On the road, the Limited is as quiet as any limousine.

However, it is still a truck, so the ride is stiff and road irregularities are felt as sharp jolts. The V-8 engine provides plenty of power off the line and in highway passing, but the calibration of the six-speed automatic, at least on the test vehicle, appeared to need a bit of work. There were times, especially on upgrades, when the engine felt as if it were straining. The only way to overcome the feeling of the engine holding back was to give the accelerator pedal a determined push to force the transmission to downshift.

The Limited model came with two big and comfortable captain’s chairs separated by a large console that opened to expose cupholders and a big storage area. It also had a powered third-row seat that folded flat at the touch of a button.

Major competitors of the Explorer are the Chevrolet Trail Blazer, the Nissan Pathfinder, the Dodge Durango, the Toyota 4-Runner, the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the new Jeep Commander.

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