The redesigned 2002 Ford Explorer must be doing more than a few things right because it remains America's top-selling sport-utility vehicle despite stronger competition from major automakers such as General Motors and Toyota. The mid-size Explorer has been the top-selling sport-ute since its early 1990 introduction. The current version was introduced early last year as a 2002 model and thus got a jump on rivals. This four-door model has base prices ranging from $24,585 to $34,510 and comes in entry XLS, mid-range XLT and high-line Eddie Bauer and Limited models.
Even the XLS is well-equipped and all are offered with rear-drive or a four-wheel drive system. That system can be left engaged on dry roads and has low-range gearing for tough off-road jaunts.
Incidentally, the new Explorer isn't to be confused with the lower-volume, specialized Explorer Sport and Sport Trac models, which ride on the old Explorer platform. Some cars are significantly restyled to retain interest in a nameplate and draw new buyers.
But the new-generation Explorer looks pretty much the same as its predecessor, with the same conservative, square-shouldered styling. Ford was apprehensive that radical new styling might put off the 3.6 million folks who bought one or two Explorers. Besides, the Explorer isn't being promoted as a flashy "crossover'' sport-utility based on a car.
People expect it to have the strong body-on-frame construction of a truck to provide the ruggedness of a conventional sport-utility.
The quieter new Explorer is slightly larger and roomier, with more rigid construction and a 2.5-inch wider stance that contributes to a more solid feel and better handling. Also improving handling is a sophisticated independent rear suspension, which replaces the old pickup-truck rear suspension. That new suspension and a two-inch-longer wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) help deliver a better ride. As a bonus, the new rear suspension lowers the back floor to make room for a third-row seat.
The seat is low and very flat but leg room is decent; it accommodates two adults fairly comfortably--at least on short trips--and expands seating capacity to seven occupants.
The $670 third seat can be reached fairly easily if you're young or limber by flipping forward the second-row seats. Cargo room is tight with the third seat in its normal position, but that seat easily can be folded flat to make room for a lot more cargo. Center seats are removable for an even larger cargo area.
A deep glass hatch swings up in the tailgate to allow easy loading without the need to swing up the entire wide tailgate, which calls for some muscle to open or close. But it has a substantial pull-down bar that lets it be closed without getting hands dirty on outside sheet metal. The dashboard is nicely designed.
However, some controls look as if made from cheap plastic and the ignition switch is on the steering column instead of the dashboard, where it could be found more quickly.
Larger door openings and a lower step-in height make it fairly easy to get in and out. Oversized outside door handles also help allow easy entry.
Front seats are comfortable, and rear windows lower all the way to permit easy access to food and beverages at drive-through lanes. Cupholders are nicely positioned, and there are a good number of small storage areas.
Running boards available for $395 on XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited models are so well integrated that they're hardly noticeable with the doors closed. They either help or hinder egress, depending on a person's shoe size. For me, they just got in the way. Standard on Eddie Bauer and Limited models are power adjustable pedals, tilt-telescopic steering wheel and a driver-seat "memory'' feature to customize the driving position.
Safety items include $495 front and second row curtain side airbags. The $255 rear-obstacle detection system is a good idea because it's often hard to see objects such as a child's bicycle directly behind the fairly large Explorer An independent rear suspension generally results in greater stability and a more comfortable ride on bumpy roads. But don't expect the new Explorer to ride like car- or minivan-based SUVs such as the Lexus RX 300 and Acura MDX. Rather, the ride is rather trucklike, although generally smooth. It isn't sloppy but gets a little bouncy on road dips and swells. The quick steering has greater linearity and allows a fairly compact turning circle for good low-speed maneuvering. The brake pedal has a reassuringly progressive action and antilock four-wheel disc brakes are standard.
But the Explorer is no high-performance sport-ute such as the BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz ML500 and thus is only reasonably agile. After all, the Explorer is high and weighs 4,094 to 4,339 pounds.
This new Ford has either a 4-liter V-6 with 210 horsepower or a smoother 4.6-liter V-8 that generates 240 horsepower and more torque. The V-8 is an $800 option for all but the base XLS models.
The V-6 is offered with a five-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic transmission, which costs $1,095 extra for the base XLS. The V-8 comes only with the automatic, which puts to shame the less advanced four-speed automatics in some rivals.
The overhead-camshaft V-6 provides decent acceleration if the Explorer isn't heavily loaded. The V-8 provides seemingly effortless performance and greater towing ability, but uses more gasoline. Estimated economy with the V-6 and manual is 15-17 in the city and 20-21 on highways. Figures with the V-8 are 14 and 19. However, only regular-grade gasoline is needed with either engine. The Explorer had virtually no competition when the first model was unveiled. Ford knew the 2002 Explorer just had to be good, considering all its new competition.
Major redesign. Roomier. Good handling. Strong V-8. Third-row seat.
No fuel miser with V-8. Conservative styling. Running boards can get in way.