Ever meet anyone who hasn't bought a Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle, or who hasn't known someone who has owned this SUV?
The mid-size Explorer has attained iconic status, having been the top-selling SUV for 15 straight years with sales of approximately 5.5 million units. Ford thus carefully revised the Explorer for 2006, not wanting to alienate current or past owners while hoping to draw new ones. It thus remains a cautious, mainstream vehicle with risk-free styling.
The Explorer has been a cash cow for Ford because the SUV market grew from 929,000 units in 1990 to 4.8 million units in 2004. The number of SUV nameplates has escalated considerably and the segment has fragmented into traditional truck-based and smaller car-based "crossover" models, with sales of the more fuel-stingy crossovers increasing this year and traditional SUV sales down. Explorer sales actually haven't increased since its arrival as an early 2002 model, when the third-generation version was launched. Production through September this year totaled 196,878 units, off from 260,030 in the same year-ago period. However, Ford says it has the largest base of SUV customers and claims that the "input of more than 5 million owners" helped influence changes made to the 2006 Explorer.
The changes are noteworthy, although the new Explorer looks much the same as the old one, which means it's no styling knockout. It's slightly longer, wider and higher, with a "boldly revised" exterior featuring three new grille styles, dual-beam headlights and a new fascia, rear hatch and taillights. There's also a quieter interior with tastefully revised styling.
A stronger, stiffer new frame allows crisper steering and handling and a better ride. The frame accompanies a new front/rear independent suspension. The front suspension has stronger components, and the rear suspension has been made more robust.
The interior gets a floor-mounted automatic transmission gear selector for the first time, although the selector is a bit touchy when moved quickly from one gear to another and partly blocks the console cupholders. The new interior has a revised instrument panel with easily read gauges and conveniently located controls. But there are meager cabin storage areas outside of a fairly deep front console bin. The avant-garde interior door handles are set almost too far forward and some might find the interior door grab bars too low.
Thick roof posts don't help outward visibility, but second- and third-row headrests fold to increase rear visibility.
The Explorer offers an $845 third-row seat reached by flipping the second-row seats forward. The third-row area has decent room for medium-size adults, but its hard to reach unless you're nimble and has a low, flat cushion. A $1,340 power-folding split third-row seat is offered for the first time.
Front seats have side impact air bags and offer good lateral support in curves, and second-row bucket seats are comfortable.
Horsepower of the new Explorer's lower-emissions 4.6-liter V-8 is up considerably to 292 from 239, and there's a responsive new six-speed automatic transmission (first in its segment) to accompany the V-8 for a claimed 10 percent fuel economy improvement. However, there's no cylinder shut-down feature for better economy during highway cruising, although General Motors and Chrysler offer that feature for V-8s.
Carried over is a 4-liter, 210-horsepower V-6 that works with a five-speed automatic and offers decent acceleration if the Explorer isn't loaded with people and cargo.
The new V-8 gives the Explorer strong acceleration, regardless of the load, but both engines provide typical mid-size SUV mediocre fuel economy in the city and about 20 mpg on highways if you're not hot rodding them.
The Explorer feels rugged and tightly built. The power steering is quick, but rather heavy at lower speeds. Handling is good for a high, heavy SUV, and the ride is firm but compliant with the new independent suspension. The brake pedal has a good feel, and routine stopping distances are OK with the upgraded brake system, which contributes to the increased 7,300-pound tow rating. (The increased payload is approximately 1,500 pounds.)
Lingering fears exist about the Explorer-Firestone rollover controversy of several years ago. So Ford stepped up and has given the Explorer a standard AdvanceTrac anti-skid system with class-exclusive Roll Stability Control that detects an impending tip and activates the anti-skid system to reduce rollover chances. Anti-lock disc brakes also are standard.
Those who want still more protection can opt for head-protecting curtain side air bags that cover the first and second seating rows and are designed to deploy in side impacts and rollovers. New adaptive safety technologies help tailor frontal-impact protection based on crash severity, occupant size and safety-belt usage.
A $1,995-$2,505 navigation system is newly offered and a $255 rear-obstacle detection system makes it safer to back up because it's impossible for a driver to see what's directly behind the Explorer.
Explorer owners have been fiercely loyal, but truck-type body-on-frame SUVs such as the Explorer are losing their allure. The move is toward more fuel-thrifty car-based "crossover" SUVs. That's bad news for financially troubled Ford and rival GM because they're heavily involved with larger SUVs, which generally more profitable than the crossovers.
The 2006 Explorer still comes with rear- or four-wheel drive that can be left engaged on dry pavement and has low-range gearing for off-road trips.
Ford doesn't want any potential Explorer customers to slip out of a showroom without buying one. It thus seemingly builds an Explorer for virtually everyone, offering various XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited trim levels.
List prices start at $26,530 and go to $35,940, and that's often without expensive options put on most of them. However, even lower-line Explorers are decently equipped.
Extras include an $850 power sunroof, new $1,295 rear DVD entertainment system and $650 auxiliary climate control. The $120 adjustable pedals are recommended for shorter drivers. There also are new $450 18-inch chrome-clad wheels and a Sirius satellite radio available late this year.
I tested the $31,650 XLT four-wheel-drive model with the 4.6-liter V-8, which had options such as the sunroof and rear entertainment system that raised its price to $37,830. The V-8 could use a more muscular sound during hard acceleration because it sounds like a smaller six-cylinder engine.
Oversized outside door handles make it easier to climb into the Explorer, although it requires extra effort to get aboard. Without the third seat, there's comfortable space for four occupants, who sit high, or for five if the fifth doesn't mind the uncomfortable center rear seat spot. The third-row seat offers seven-passenger capacity.
Second- and third-row seatbacks fold flat to greatly enlarge the cargo area, although there isn't much cargo space with the third-row seatbacks in an upright position. The tailgate has a handy separate-opening glass area, but the heavy hatch requires extra muscle to open or close.
The Explorer has been continually improved since its debut. It's very good in many ways, although not exceptional in any particular way. That's the case with most popular mainstream vehicles, and here's betting that the Explorer again will be the top-selling SUV in 2006.
2006 FORD EXPLORER
Roomy. More V-8 power. Revised interior. Roll stability control system.
Risk-free styling. Rather heavy steering. Touchy shifter. Typical mediocre SUV city fuel economy.