By careful we don't mean conservative, either. By careful, we mean Ford spent serious effort dotting the i's and crossing the t's, looking after the details that make all the difference. At the same time, Ford realigned the models and overhauled the pricing structure, giving customers more truck for less money, nearly $4,000 less in some cases.
The new Explorer is available with a V6 or V8. It's a traditional midsize SUV with body-on-frame construction, and competes against the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, and Nissan Pathfinder.
We were well pleased with the new steering, the new suspension, and the new brakes used on the 2006 model, all of which have improved by at least one order of magnitude. The new 2006 Explorer is quieter than last year's model and it rides better. It also leans less in corners and the brakes are more responsive. The rear seats fold flatter than on last year's models and the interior has been improved throughout.
Ford Explorer XLS ($27,175), XLT ($28,870), XLT Sport ($30,845), Eddie Bauer ($30,845), Limited ($33,160)
The combination of more chrome, bigger and bolder lamps and the new square-cornered aero mirrors make it look more like a Lexus SUV than a Ford, and we mean that in the most complimentary way. They don't want you to mistake it, though, so every 2006 Explorer badge is about twice as big and twice as thick as those on 2005 models.
Between the elaborate headlamps and the revamped rear lamps, it's a big, empty box with five large doors and a whole bunch of space inside. With the V8 engine, the new Explorer is rated to tow up to a whopping 7,300 pounds. And it's rated to carry up to 1,500 pounds of payload.
Second-row seats are available as a 60/40 split bench seat, a 60/40 split bench with recline and third-row access, or two bucket seats and a console. The bucket seats are more comfortable for adults, but the bench seats fold down better for cargo.
The third row, when ordered, sits almost two inches higher than before so kids can see out better. The third row is always a 50/50 split, but is available with manual or power folding and unfolding.
And now the floor really is completely flat when all the seats are folded, with almost no forward rise (2 degrees as opposed to 10 before). With three seats, you get 13.6, then 43.9, then 83.7 cubic feet of space as the seats fold down; the five-seater has slightly more room with the seats folded.
The DVD-based navigation system is very easy to use, with excellent colors and graphics, though the screen is on the small side.
Ford designers may have gone over the top on the front door armrests, the latch pull, and the opening handle. The armrest is very large and filled with foam to assist in side crash protection, with the chrome latch pull rounded around the leading edge, but the door handle is buried underneath it, where the human wrist cannot comfortably go. Otherwise, the new Explorer interior works very well.
The new seats are at once more supportive and more comfortable than the old, hard Explorer seats, the colors and trims and combinations are elegant and tasteful, the metallic trims just about right, not overdone.
With the V6, you get a five-speed overdrive automatic. With the V8, you get a brand new Ford-built six-speed automatic overdrive transmission with full electronic control of upshifting, downshifting and torque converter functions. Both powertrains are quiet and smooth. The lighter V6 is a bit easier to turn and maneuver, but both are very pleasant, competent and quiet rides.
Ford told us before we drove the truck that customers had demanded quieter operation from the new Explorer, so they have used the body-on-frame design to maximum advantage to quiet the truck down, isolate it from the road, and halt the transmission of noise and vibration. In this respect, Ford has done an exemplary job on the new truck. The AC system operates with 30 percent less noise yet moves and exchanges more air. Conversations are easily heard, the music sounds good, and the mirrors, with their new square corners defying aero logic, are mercifully quiet, as are the tires.
This is a big, heavy family truck with 15 years of continuous sales success and a few dark episodes behind it (involving previous-generation models), so they have utterly bathed it in safety equipment, from standard Roll Stability Control (also used in Volvo, Land Rover, and other Ford Truck products) to smart air bags to side air bags to an air curtain setup for the second and third rows. Ford says it expects a full house of five-star safety ratings, the highest possible, when the truck is tested.
The new steering on the 2006 Explorer has a much heftier feel at highway speeds with plenty of assist for parking. The new suspension is one of the most supple we've driven on any SUV in this big class. And the new brakes work much harder with much less pedal pressure and travel than before. Body roll is much better (the Explorer leans less in corners), and the general feeling of being planted on Earth is stronger on this new chassis. The new chassis is some 63-percent stiffer than before, and a stiff chassis is a key element for crisp handling and a smooth ride. This truck manages to be isolated from the road, but well connected to it, at the same time.
Ford is a lot better at trucks than cars these days, and with the new Explorer, they have shown just how good they are at getting the basics right and getting the pricing realigned. They understand that today's customer is keenly aware of all the choices in this segment, is simply not willing to pay as much for a new SUV as they may have been five years ago, and that the new customer wants more goodies for the money or he or she will go elsewhere. This new Explorer is as much an exercise in cost accounting as truck design, and it succeeds on both counts. Overall, a great value.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Dearborn, Michigan.