The New York Times
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February 19, 2006
Behind the Wheel

2006 Ford Explorer: Polishing a Tarnished Trophy


ITS journey was long, bumpy and perilous, but the Ford Explorer managed to stay at the head of the S.U.V. pack for most of the last 15 years.

Since 1990, when the first of nearly six million Explorers found a buyer, Ford's midsize S.U.V. was the No. 1 sport utility until last year (when the Chevy TrailBlazer took the lead). More than that, the Explorer essentially defined the conventional S.U.V. that is, family-size wagons built like trucks, with bodies mounted to a frame.

Along the way, the Explorer endured an exceptional number of crises: the failures of its Firestone tires, a spate of deadly rollovers, a flurry of lawsuits and huge damage awards. More recently, Ford's pioneering sport utility has faced new challenges: a crowded field of solid new competitors and high gasoline prices that have cooled demand for S.U.V.'s. Explorer sales, down 29 percent last year, have dropped by nearly half since 2002.

While consumers still seem to want utility-type vehicles, many are turning away from conventional S.U.V.'s like the Explorer in favor of car-based wagons called crossovers. Often slightly smaller than true S.U.V.'s, crossovers are built more like passenger cars and tend to be more efficient.

In revamping the Explorer for the 2006 model year, the challenge for Ford engineers was to combine the positive attributes of a conventional S.U.V., like off-road prowess, heavy towing capacity and a roomy cabin, with a more comfortable highway ride, more carlike handling, a quieter interior, better fuel economy and an updated, upscale design.

Ford's successful redesign of its F-150 pickup pointed the way, and indeed the Explorer emerged from its own makeover as a vastly improved vehicle. The 2006 model is refined, quiet and smooth.

While big changes have been made inside and out, the conservative, evolutionary styling doesn't provide much of a tipoff. The 2006 Explorer has some new details particularly the lights and badges but looks much the same over all.

It comes in four trim levels XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited and all offer a choice of rear drive or four-wheel drive. The XLT is expected to remain the best seller, though the upscale look and features of the Eddie Bauer have proved popular. There are three distinct grilles the XLT and Limited share a design to differentiate the model lines.

The four-door body continues to offer the usual folding-seat arrangement, though the floor is now truly flat when the seats are down. A third-row seat, split evenly in two pieces, is available on all but the XLS. A power folding mechanism, which lowers either side of the seat, is available in the top two models, though it is hard to see any advantage to it.

For those who really need a third seat, the Explorer has, in my experience, the only one in a midsize S.U.V. (or crossover) that adults can actually use for any length of time.

The second seat now folds up to provide access to the third row, and it folds flat as well to create space for cargo. There is one awkward glitch: folding down the seat exposes a large gap between it and the cargo floor to the rear.

Some of the biggest changes are not easy to see, but they can be heard and felt. New front and rear suspensions and a stiffer frame improve the handling, smooth the ride and reduce noise incrementally.

Improvements in the powertrain are particularly notable. Both the base V-6 engine (4 liters, 210 horsepower) and optional V-8 (4.6 liters, 292 horsepower) have been updated for more power and improved economy.

Ford says this V-6 is one of the cleanest engines available, meeting the same ultra-low emissions standard (ULEV-II) as the Ford Escape Hybrid. This is no small feat in such a large S.U.V., but it tells only part of the story: the V-6 Explorer's carbon-dioxide emissions are significantly higher than the Escape Hybrid's simply because it consumes more gasoline (14 m.p.g. city/20 highway, compared with the hybrid's 36/31). Carbon dioxide, produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, is a greenhouse gas linked to global warming.

The V-6 is paired with a five-speed automatic transmission.

The V-8 has 53 more horses this year, but even more important it comes with a six-speed automatic. That many gears can significantly improve the driving experience: the powertrain feels more responsive, fuel economy is better and interior noise is reduced. The six-speed also increases the trailer-towing capacity (as much as 7,300 pounds) and moves the Explorer off the line faster. This win-win situation is why most foreign-based automakers are using multispeed transmissions rather than the four-speed automatics still often found in domestic vehicles.

Given the Explorer's safety issues in the past, it is no surprise that the '06 model offers most of the protections found in passenger cars.

The front air bags have moved beyond "smart" bags that sense whether a seat is occupied and whether to activate with full force. The Explorer's front passenger bag knows how much an occupant weighs and his or her approximate size, and tailors the shape and size of the bag to the body.

Unfortunately, side curtain bags that provide head protection are not standard, as they are on several new S.U.V.'s and sedans. (The curtains are optional on all models.) These curtains are also a bonus in the event of a rollover: they help to keep passengers from being thrown out and they remain inflated longer, in case the vehicle rolls several times.

An electronic antiroll stability control is standard.

The new Explorer received five stars in each of the government's four crash tests, measuring the likely effects of front and side crashes on the driver, front passenger and rear passenger.

My test model was a loaded Eddie Bauer version with nearly all the bells and whistles, raising the base price of $34,270 to $42,820. Options included a navigation system, power folding third-row seat, rear-seat DVD player and the side curtain bags. A less lavishly equipped XLT would list for $33,580, and huge discounts are available (including, currently, a $2,000 cash rebate).

The redesigned Explorer truly looks and feels upgraded. Ford's grand claims that this is the quietest, most capable, most powerful, most economical and safest Explorer yet seem to be largely valid.

One's first impression is that this a rather large, blocky vehicle, but once you are inside the Explorer feels roomy and luxurious. Lessons learned in the F-150's interior redesign were put to good use here. Colors are tasteful and the trim fits together well.

Nonetheless, a few glaring details detract from the positive initial impression. Sharp reflections off the instruments' chrome trim are an annoying reminder that style won out over function. The interior door design, with a clever armrest into which controls are set, causes newcomers to search for the hidden door handle. A separate door pull is not just awkward; positioned fairly low on the door, it intrudes on the knee of a tall driver.

The interior was indeed quiet. The test car's V-8 moaned smoothly and powerfully, its sound perfectly suited to this type of vehicle.

The transmission, with its almost imperceptible shifts, was a delight. I averaged about 15 m.p.g. on regular gasoline not very good, but typical of the class.

The ride was an improvement over previous models, smooth on the highway and not harsh on poorer roads. The steering is quick and direct and the turning radius is fairly short, making the Explorer relatively maneuverable in tight quarters. While the handling was a bit ponderous, it was no worse, and probably better, than most S.U.V.'s of this size. At the wheel, the Explorer feels smaller than it actually is.

My early production vehicle required nearly constant small corrections to keep the truck in line at highway speed. But the brake pedal was firm, and stops were forceful and predictable.

The new Explorer is, in almost every way, an upgrade from its troubled predecessors. Its one obvious flaw is its mediocre fuel economy; since the '06 went on sale last fall just as gas prices were spiking, monthly sales have fallen sharply from year-earlier levels. Clearly, a lot of onetime Explorer customers are turning away from truck-based S.U.V.'s to more efficient vehicles.

Also, Ford faces new competition from General Motors, which is now selling redesigned and significantly improved versions of its Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon.

While these G.M. models are slightly larger and do not come with a V-6, they could attract customers from the Explorer or counter some of Ford's claims of exclusive features.

INSIDE TRACK: As good as the best, but do you still want one?