The Ford Explorer continues as the top-selling sport-utility vehicle, which is saying a lot because of stronger domestic and foreign competition in recent years.
The Explorer has been the top-selling sport-ute since its early 1990 introduction, and sales momentum has helped keep this truck on top.
Even adverse publicity involving highly publicized tire recalls for the vehicle didn't slow sales much. Explorer loyalty is tremendous--it seems as if buying a newer version has become a habit with many Explorer owners. This is the type of "repeat-buyer'' vehicle automakers dream about.
The Explorer was redesigned for 2002. The conservative, square-shouldered styling essentially was retained. But this sport-ute was made slightly larger and roomier with a longer wheelbase--and got a 2.5-inch wider stance and independent rear suspension for better ride and handling. It became more user-friendly, with such things as taller doors and a lower step-in height.
While attractive, the Explorer's styling doesn't match that of sleeker sport-utes such as the Nissan Murano. But then, the Explorer offers more cargo room than the five-passenger Murano and offers seating for seven occupants with the optional third-row seat.
The Explorer continues to offer an escalating number of versions and features--all of which shouldn't allow a Ford salesperson to let potential Explorer buyers leave a showroom without finding exactly the version they want, equipped precisely the way they want it.
Explorers start with the XLS model with rear-drive and go to the more upscale XLS Sport, XLT, XLT Sport, NBX, Eddie Bauer and Limited versions.
A 4-liter V-6 with 210 horsepower and a 4.6-liter V-8 generating 239 horsepower and more torque are offered. The V-6 provides decent performance, but the quieter, stronger V-8 is the way to go with this vehicle because it weighs from 4,286 to 4,449 pounds.
The Explorer is pretty fast with either engine if carrying a moderate load. And the V-8 absolutely loafs on highways, registering 2,100 rpm at 70 mph.
Both engines work with a smooth, responsive five-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel economy is about what you'd expect from a powerful mid-size sport-ute--nothing special. Expect in the low- to mid-teens in the city and about 20 mpg on the highway if you stick close to 65 mph.
Base prices range from $26,285 for the entry XLS and end at $37,000 for the Limited V-8 with all-wheel drive. (These four-door models shouldn't be confused with the lower-volume, more specialized two- and four-door Sport and Sport Track models, which use the old Explorer platform.)
Newly available for the high-volume 2003 Explorer are an electronic stability enhancement system, upgraded Explorer Limited package, chrome grille and black-grained door handles on the XLT and return of the Eddie Bauer, XLS and XLT Sport Group packages.
There's also new availability of all-wheel drive on XLS, XLS Sport, XLT, XLT Sport, Eddie Bauer and Limited versions. The all-wheel drive, which calls for no driver involvement, is essentially the same as the available four-wheel drive--but has no low-range gearing for rough off-road driving.
The newly offered rear-seat entertainment system with DVD player can be had only if the optional third-row seat is ordered.
The new NBX I tested essentially is an XLT Sport with extra features. It costs $30,200 with the V-6 and rear-drive and $33,225 for the all-wheel-drive V-8 version I tested.
Standard NBX items include two-tone black bumpers, black cladding, wheel lip moldings and 17-inch aluminum wheels with all-terrain tires. There's also a unique fabric style for the front sport bucket seats--and step bars (running boards) that are useless for those who don't have small shoe sizes.
Ford says the "heart'' of the NBX is a large, roof-mounted Yakima multi-use "LoadWarrior'' cargo basket made of heavy-duty steel. Ford said the 6.5-inch-deep basket is "especially adept at keeping messy gear out of the plush Explorer interior.'' But I was more concerned that it might damage the garage door opener mechanism on the interior of my garage roof. It didn't do that, but those ordering the NBX version best check their interior garage height.
All Explorers are well-equipped with comfort and convenience items, and a handy option is a rear-obstacle detection system.
Standard safety features include anti-lock disc brakes. Optional head-protecting curtain side air bags that deploy in side impacts and rollovers are offered for the first and second seating rows. But torso side air bags are unavailable, and an anti-skid system is optional.
The Explorer feels refined and provides almost carlike ride and handling. It has traditionally rugged body-on-frame truck construction, partly because that allows greater towing abilities. Steering is precise, and the Explorer has a fairly compact turning circle.
Handling is good, although the Explorer isn't as quick as a car during directional changers. The ride is smooth. The brake pedal feels a bit too soft, but has a progressive action. Stopping distances are OK.
Large door handles help entry, although extra effort is needed to get in and out of the quiet, nicely designed cabin, which has plenty of cupholders and storage areas. The front seats in my test Explorer provided good side support in curves, but the speedometer and tachometer should be larger and sound system controls are small. However, most controls are easily reached and available adjustable pedals let shorter drivers sit farther from the steering wheel air bag.
The $670 third-row seat is reached by flipping forward the second-row seat, which is low and flat but offers decent room for two shorter adults. Cargo space is tight with the third seat in its normal position, but that seat can be folded flat to allow a large cargo area. Center seats are removable for an even bigger cargo area.
The tailgate has a deep glass hatch, which swings up to allow easy loading without need to swing up the entire wide, heavy tailgate.
Ford has worked hard to make the Explorer one of the better buys in the sport-utility market, and it shows.
Passenger and cargo room. Carlike ride and handling. Refined.
Marginal fuel economy with V-8. Rather small gauges. Narrow running boards.