- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

Ever since the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle was introduced in 1990, I’ve driven every new model. Without doubt, the 2006 Explorer is the best yet.

Improvements are expected over the years, but the latest model has taken a giant step in various areas. I strolled around the Explorer Limited 4x4 admiring its beautiful 18-inch chrome wheels, matching its huge chrome grille, contrasted by dark cherry-colored body paint. It’s an eye-catcher.

Because SUVs offer versatility in hauling cargo, towing and off-roading, and seat up to seven passengers, this segment has been the most popular in the automotive industry for more than a decade. But high gasoline prices have caused the SUV popularity to nosedive. The question: Can this new midsize Explorer outsell other SUVs with its base price of $35,940.

The 2006 model, with its V-8 engine, has more power, improved fuel economy, low emissions, new advanced safety technology and two very impressing features: interior quietness and smooth comfortable ride. I’m told it has the lowest front-seat noise level at highway speeds compared to any SUV on the market.

Although a V-6 engine is available, the test vehicle had a 4.6-liter V-8 engine that produced 292 horsepower and 300 lbs.-ft. of torque. This power allows the 4x4 to tow 7,300 pounds. Linked to a six-speed automatic transmission that has a wide gear ratio, it is expected to deliver a 10-percent increase in fuel economy.

Fuel economy is the downside of SUVs and my tester, as rated by the Environmental Protection Agency, has 14 city and 20 highway. As a constant reminder, the fuel economy is indicated on the dash panel. With city driving, it registered 13.9 average; on the highway, with cruise control set at the legal speed, it increased to 18.2 miles per gallon. That’s typical of most EPA ratings, as the numbers on the window sticker are not realistic. The EPA is now in the process of revamping them.

Because the fuel gauge was difficult to read, I kept my eye on it as the tank got low. Then a “Low Fuel” notice appeared on the dash panel. But even after I gassed up, I was frustrated that the illuminated message remained on.

The running board makes it easier to get into the driver’s seat, and the interior door handles are easier to grab compared to previous models. The bucket seats are covered with quality leather and the driver’s seat can be adjusted to 12 positions — and these seats can be heated.

The steering wheel has numerous buttons for sound, heat and cruise control. Confusing at first, but once I figured out what each button did, it was very convenient.

Another area of confusion is the $2,000 optional navigational system that also required reading of the instruction manual, but once I understood it, I found this system — a first ever on the Explorer — contained turn-by-turn voice instructions.

Although the Explorer is big, it’s easy to handle as it responds to each turn of the steering wheel with precision. I tried pushing it hard through some curves and found the Explorer obliged my every dictate.

This is a heavy vehicle, and has an exceptionally comfortable ride. The Ford people say the Explorer has the most active and passive safety features in its class. It has AdvanceTrac with exclusive Roll Stability Control, plus advanced side-impact rollover protection.

Without doubt, this new Explorer is a marvelous SUV. In fact, the 3-valve, 4.6-liter V-8 has just been named a “10 Best Engine” by Ward’s Auto World for its power coupled with better fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.

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