Essentially a Ford Explorer with a pickup bed, the Sport Trac offers plenty of room inside for people and out back for cargo. It comes standard with a 4.0-liter V6 that makes 210 horsepower, and a 292-hp V8 is optional. Both engines are available with rear- or four-wheel drive.
With the V8, the Sport Trac offers power near the top of the class. The power is delivered smoothly, but isn't as responsive in passing maneuvers as some might wish.
The Sport Trac's high ride height means the ride quality gets a bit busy over potholed or broken pavement, but otherwise, the ride is smooth, thanks in part to an independent rear suspension that also aids handling. Directional stability is good, steering response is quick, and body lean is well controlled for a heavy vehicle.
Inside, the Sport Trac has easy-to-read instruments and nice materials. Unfortunately, the door pulls are strangely positioned, making them hard to operate for some. Room, on the other hand, is plentiful front and rear. The bed offers decent room and some unique storage bins, but those who haul a lot of cargo regularly will want a more traditional pickup.
After benefiting from a redesign for 2007, the 2008 Ford Explorer Sport Trac adds more standard features and additional optional equipment. The most notable new feature, available on late-2008 models, is Ford's Sync communications and entertainment system. New standard features include fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a power rear window, a drop-in storage bin, and side curtain airbags. The optional navigation system offers voice activation for 2008.
Ford Explorer Sport Trac XLT 4X2 ($24,715); XLT 4X4 ($27,210); Limited 4X2 ($26,405); Limited 4X4 ($28,900)
The 2008 Sport Trac is considerably longer than the Explorer. Wheelbase (distance between the tires front to rear) and overall length (bumper to bumper) are both almost 17 inches longer. Thus, while the Explorer is the more people-oriented of the two, the Sport Trac's longer wheelbase promises a less choppy, more controlled ride. Curious. The Dodge Dakota Quad Cab is the only other midsize pickup to exceed the Sport Trac in wheelbase and overall length, and by less than an inch in wheelbase. Of the remaining four-door, short-bed, midsize pickups, the Chevrolet Colorado, the Honda Ridgeline, the Nissan Frontier and the Toyota Tacoma measure between three and four inches shorter overall. The Sport Trac's bed is 4.5 feet long, the rest around 5 feet.
From the rear, the Sport Trac looks like a Ford pickup. One distinctive aspect is that the sides of the bed and the tailgate rise as much as three inches higher than is the norm in the segment. While this increases the space enclosed by the bed, it definitely makes hefting boxes and bags up and over into the bed more of a strain, a painful trait it shares with the Honda Ridgeline. By making the Sport Trac look taller, it also raises the Sport Trac's visual center of gravity, although the wider body and wider track help to reduce this impression.
The instruments are simple and easy to scan. The fuel and coolant gauges are tucked away in the lower, outer quadrants of the tachometer and speedometer; they could be larger and located closer to the driver's line of sight. The center stack is packed with functions but it's intuitively organized, with readily deciphered controls and displays. However, we'd prefer a tuning knob for the radio instead of the Sport Trac's slow scanning rocker switch.
The optional navigation system pushes the audio controls to the side and either gangs some functions or transfers them to the LCD screen, and it's a clean look. The only real concern here is with the number of components making up the dash assembly. The fewer the components the better, generally speaking, to reduce the number of squeaks as the miles pile up, and the Sport Trac's dash has one of the highest counts we've seen.
The seats are comfortable, though the bottom cushions front and rear could provide more thigh support. Foot clearance in the rear doorways when climbing in and out is cramped, but once inside, there's decent area beneath the front seats. All five seating positions get three-point seatbelts, but only the front seats and the outboard rear seats get the adjustable full-size head restraints. Comparatively speaking, the Sport Trac's interior lands squarely in the middle of the segment. The Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma have a few tenths of an inch more front-seat headroom, the Honda Ridgeline almost an inch. The Frontier and the Ridgeline are tops in rear-seat headroom, but by only tenths of an inch. The Chevy Colorado has an inch and a half more front-seat legroom but almost two inches less rear-seat legroom. The Ridgeline wins in hiproom, by about two inches front and rear, the Frontier offers fully two and a half inches more rear-seat hiproom, and the Dakota squeaks in with a half-inch more hiproom all around. Bottom line, Sport Trac interior roominess is comparable to that of midsize crew cab pickups.
The Sport Trac's door panels, borrowed from the Explorer, aren't so good. While certain elements are reasonably ergonomic, the placement of the door handles is a prime example of logic gone wrong. Intended to improve occupant protection in side impact crashes by adding crush space, the placement of the door pull below and forward of the armrest puts it where it's awkward to grab hold of and operate. Some passengers don't have an issue with it, however, and we grew accustomed to it with a little familiarity, but the interior door handles are our main gripe with the interior.
Storage is about what's to be expected. The glove box is adequate. The front center console hosts two cupholders adjacent to the shift gate. Two more cupholders for the rear seat fit behind the front center console's hinged, padded top. The center console is big and deep. The front door map pockets have a space for a water bottle molded into their hard plastic enclosures.
Back in the bed, a shallow, covered bin running the width of the floor is placed inconveniently all the way forward and thus out of reach from the tailgate. A small, covered bin is also recessed into the floor at each side behind the wheelhouses. Both types of bins are good ideas, but they hold very little and aren't on a par with the Ridgeline's lockable, 8.5 cubic-foot trunk in the bed floor aft of the wheel housings. On the other hand, with the Sport Trac's optional two-piece, lockable, hard tonneau cover in place, the enclosed volume of the cargo bed measures 37.5 cubic feet. Depending on how the truck was going to be us
With the V8, maximum towing capacity for the Sport Trac is 7160 pounds, with the V6 it's 5260 pounds.
And the V8's fuel economy ratings only trail those of the V6 slightly: 13/20 mpg City/Highway. The 2008 Sport Trac with the V6 is EPA-rated at 14/20 mpg City/Highway. With four-wheel drive, the EPA ratings are 13/19 mpg with the V6, 13/19 mpg with the V8.
How the V8 responds when the gas pedal is pressed isn't quite as impressive as the 292 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque suggest, however. Power comes on smoothly, yes, with no discernible phasings from the variable valve timing. But the torque peaks at a relatively high engine speed (3950 rpm). And while the V8 and six-speed automatic work well launching the vehicle from a stop light, passing power doesn't come on as quickly as some drivers might wish. From a refinement standpoint, the engine feels somewhat metallic and there's a tiny jolt every time you take off from a stop as the slack in the driveline is taken up.
Ride quality is smooth and well damped, traits not widely shared by the live axle-outfitted competition. The Sport Trac has an independent rear suspension, a design associated with sports cars, and this gives it a smooth ride and good handling. Indeed, the Ridgeline is the only other truck in this class with an independent rear suspension. Drive over seriously potholed or broken pavement and you're reminded you're in a truck, but it's good by pickup standards.
Directional stability is good, and steering response is quick, considering the weight of the vehicle. Understeer, where the truck wants to go straight instead of turning, is the default mode if a corner is entered while carrying too much momentum. In those cases, the electronic stability control helps keep things under control. Body lean is relatively controlled in corners. The Sport Trac feels a bit more confident in quick direction changes than the Honda Ridgeline, which isn't quite as sure-footed. The Dakota and Tacoma closely match the Sport Trac's planted feel.
Brake pedal feel is solid, if not really firm, and the ABS keeps everything under control in panic stops.
The Sport Trac easily offers the tightest turning circle in its class, almost four feet tighter than the next-best Toyota Tacoma's and seven-and-a-half feet inside the last-place Chevy Colorado's. That means the Sport Trac is more maneuverable, important when making a U-turn or in crowded parking lots and other tight quarters.
We haven't driven a V6-powered Sport Trac. The V6 is large and torquey, but the Sport Trac is heavy, so we suspect the V6 won't provide much punch. On the upside, save for speed and quickness, we expect it'll have much the same ride and handling dynamics as that of the V8.
The 2008 Ford Explorer Sport Trac is pleasant to drive, with a smooth ride and plenty of power with the optional V8. It is roomy for passengers on the inside and has a decent amount of room in the bed for hauling cargo. Cargo room is enhanced by the available locking hard tonneau cover and the optional bed extender. Prices can approach $40,000 with all the bells and whistles, but a wisely optioned Sport Trac is a good choice for those who regularly carry passengers and need to haul cargo from time to time.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Laguna Beach, California. NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell contributed from Chicago.