It was September 17. Though it rained early in the morning and the afternoon remained overcast, I still had several pleasant hours driving around the parking lot outside U.S. Cellular Field.
The reason was Ford’s special Chicagoland consumers “Test Drive” event of the brand-new 2006 Fusion mid-size four-door sedan and the restyled Explorer sport utility vehicle.
Spread out over the large paved lot just north of the imposing White Sox ballpark was a series of closed courses where the public could test the latest Ford vehicles with out sales pressure.
I concentrated on the 2006 Explorer.
Available in a series of four, the 2006 Explorer starts with the value entry XLS, then moves up to the XLT (50 percent of Explorer models), the Eddie Bauer Edition and Limited.
Each has its own grille design to easily differentiate the models at a glance.
Top of-the-line Limited wears a four-bar chrome grille above the bumper, and a single chrome bar in the opening below.
The XLT has the same four-bars, but finished in onyx gray.
Eddie Bauer Edition features a chrome three-bar grille with nostrils, a styling cue first seen on Ford’s Mighty F-350 Tonka Truck concept in 2002.
The base XLS model uses an onyx gray three-bar grille.
Additional exterior changes on all models include new headlights and taillights, plus the roof racks and skullcaps are upgraded on the Eddie Bauer and Limited models via chrome pieces.
In the 2006 Explorer, the standard power train is a 210 horsepower four- liter single overhead cam V-6 paired with a five-speed automatic.
Stephen A. Noel, Ford Division SUV Launch Planner, who walked me around the various Explorer models, said that the V-6 produces 74 percent less smog-forming emissions and is certified to same federal tailpipe emissions standards as Ford Escape Hybrid.
“For increase performance, the 4.6-liter V-8 delivers 292 horsepower coupled to a six-speed automatic. Not only does the new engine give 53 more horsepower over the previous V-8 powertrain, it also offers a 10 percent gain in fuel economy,” Noel said.
The handsome cabin seems more intuitive and ergonomically friendly, with controls in easy reach and gauges nicely grouped in front of driver. For the first time in an Explorer, a console-mounted shifter is offered, and the interior curved door handles blend smartly around the top of the slanted armrest.
Noel explained that with the optional 3rd row seats, both the second and third row could fold completely flat. “We also offer power buttons on the rear interior panel to raise and lower each of the individual third row seats, which is a first in Explorers segment.”
To make visibility better for the third row passengers, the seats are elevated one and three-quarter inch higher than the second row.
What impressed the majority of folks who piloted the new Explorer in Chicago was how silent it was in the cabin during their test drives.
To begin with, the Explorer engineering team focused on every aspect of the vehicle, including the exterior, interior, chassis, and powertrain to quell noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH).
There is a huge reduction in wind noise because of the aerodynamic side mirrors. They are larger for increased visibility, yet the mirror shell manages the airflow more effectively, resulting in less wind turbulence transmitted into the cabin. In fact, this new design is so successful; the mirrors actually reduce wind noise compared to tests conducted with no side mirrors at all.
Further, the roof panel features modified "beads" or ridges stamped into the sheet metal that help prevent the large body panel from vibrating, stifling unwanted noise.
Interiors use advanced materials that dampen vibrations and lessen noise along the headliner, door panels and floor of the passenger compartment.
Power train refinements include exhaust resonators and intake manifold "valley stuffers" that quiet the air induction and exhaust sounds. Ford achieved a 40-percent reduction in idling noises, and the climate control system is 30-percent quieter than before.
Ford Explorer is one of only two mid-price, mid-size SUVs to offer the refinement and capability of an independent rear suspension
Last year, the Explorer was first in class in frame rigidly, yet Ford engineers improved frame stiffness for 2006 by a whopping 63-percent.
To demonstrate the superiority of the new body and chassis, Ford had a special capability course for the Explorer that included portable potholes, slick surfaces for traction control and hard acceleration, and ramps to demonstrated the improve undercarriage and body construction.
After driving the Explorer onto these special ramps, you could then balance the vehicle on just two wheels, with the front passenger side and rear driver side wheels teetering in the air. What was remarkable was during that test, there was not a hint of creaking or groaning, even with the doors opened, which is about the most torsional stress you could put on a body.
There was a slight noise from the front, which was the traction controls working.
What it does, is generate brake pressure, so when the system senses that one wheel is spinning free, as it would in mid-air, it moderates brake pressure to that one wheel to stop it spinning. The system fools the rear end into thinking that the wheel is still on flat ground, and the wheel that is still on something hard, powers the vehicle forward.
Even with all the upgrades and additional features the average sticker across all 2006 Explorer series is $1,700 less in realigned prices than its predecessor.
Ford has a lot riding on Explorer, the top-selling SUV for 15 consecutive years. For 2006, Ford engineers have found ways to improve upon the vehicle and I think from first impressions, the sales figures will continue its meteoric rise, with almost 5.5 million Explorers built since 1990.