- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

It took more than 70 years, but Ford finally has a competitor for the venerable Chevrolet Suburban.

The Suburban, first introduced in 1935, had the giant-sized sport utility market virtually to itself over the years.

Surprisingly, with all of its expertise in trucks, Ford never saw fit to directly challenge the Suburban. A few years back, it went the one-upmanship route with the bigger Excursion. But it was too much — too heavy-duty, mostly — and it never caught on.

Ford was somewhat of a contender in the class with its full-size Expedition. But despite the fact that it had three rows of seats, it did not have the Suburban’s cargo capacity and competed mainly against the Chevrolet Tahoe and its siblings.

For 2007, the competitive set changes. There now are two new Expedition models: the standard size, which still butts up against the Tahoe, and the new Expedition EL, which for the first time gives Ford a bumper-to-bumper alternative to the Suburban.

The EL is almost 15 inches longer than the standard Expedition, with a wheelbase — the distance between the front and rear axles — that is a full foot longer.

Most of that stretching has gone into increased cargo space. gone into increased cargo space. The EL has 43 cubic feet of space behind the third row, or 24 cubic feet more than the standard model’s 19 cubic feet.

That means you can carry eight people, with a luggage area that exceeds the capacity of two Lincoln Town Cars. If you fold the EL’s second- and third-row seats, the cargo area expands to a cavernous 131 cubic feet.

The area also can accommodate the time-honored 4X8-foot sheet of plywood.

Ford makes the whole configuration user-friendly as well. The third-row seats — as either standard equipment or an option — are motorized and fold flat at the touch of a button. The manual second-row seats easily flip forward and “kneel down” to provide a flat cargo floor from the tailgate to the backs of the front-row seats.

Moreover, for hauling or tailgate parties, the rear section of the cargo area has a solid shelf that can be used to partition the area vertically or horizontally.

The front seats are the biggest and most comfortable in the vehicle, but nobody gets short-changed. With a nearly flat floor, the second row accommodates three adults with plenty of knee and head room, and the third row seat does almost as well, although it is narrower and is best used by two adults or three children. It also is reasonably easy to climb into the third row, thanks to second-row seats that, in addition to kneeling down, flip forward out of the way.

Though the standard Expedition has basically been refreshed from the 2006 model year, with a new look, the EL is all-new.

Starting prices for rear-wheel-drive models range from $29,995 for the standard rear-drive XLT model to $40,745 for the two-wheel-drive EL Limited model.

The test vehicle was the EL Limited with all-wheel drive and part-time four-wheel drive with high and low ranges. It had a starting price of $42,575. A long list of equipment included traction, stability and roll control; anti-lock brakes, and side-curtain air bags. Options brought the suggested price to $50,765.

Power is provided by a 300-horsepower, 5.4-liter V-8 engine linked to a new six-speed automatic transmission. The Expedition also features a new independent rear suspension system aimed at improving handling even when towing a trailer. The tested 4X4 EL model can tow up to 8,750 pounds.

Most modern trucks handle as well or better than sedans of just a decade ago, and the Expedition EL —despite its size — is no exception. It drives like a smaller vehicle.

The transmission adapts easily and smoothly to varying power needs. However, despite the 300-horsepower V-8 under the “power dome” hood, the test truck weighs more than 3 tons, so it has adequate though not exceptional acceleration.

Fuel economy, as expected, is better but nothing to brag about. The EPA city/highway rating is 14/20 miles to the gallon.

There’s an all-new classy interior design, with tasteful dollops of wood-grain trim. But the faceted chrome bezels around the instruments, though stylish, reflect random glints of light into the driver’s eyes.

Moreover, except for the speedometer and tachometer, the instruments are difficult to read in daylight. Daytime lighting would help.

The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope. And when the screen for the rear entertainment system is deployed, it partially blocks vision to the rear.

Recent drastic increases in fuel prices have squeezed the full-size SUV contingent. A few years ago, sales hovered around 1 million a year.

But Ford agrees with General Motors that this segment of the market will settle in at about 650,000 a year — still a substantial number to share.

Sales of the Chevrolet Suburban are running at an annual rate of about 70,000. With its new Expedition EL, Ford finally has a vehicle to either expand that number or cut into the Suburban’s pie.

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