Explorer was completely redesigned for the 2006 model year and we were pleased with the new steering, the new suspension, and the new brakes, all of which were vastly improved over the previous-generation. The latest Explorer is quieter than previous models, and it rides better. It also leans less in corners and the brakes are more responsive. The rear seats fold flatter, and the interior has been improved throughout. More important, it's a very nice vehicle that's pleasant to live with and it compares well with the competition.
With the V8 engine, the Explorer is rated to tow up to a whopping 7,300 pounds; that's about as much as a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a Hemi. And Explorer is rated to carry up to 1,520 pounds of payload.
Explorer earned the best possible impact protection rating in the government's crash tests: five stars for the driver in a frontal impact, the front-seat passenger in a frontal impact, front-seat occupants in a side impact, and rear-seat occupants in a side impact. (This was in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 2006 model-year New Car Assessment Program.) Ford says the Explorer is designed to meet all known federal frontal- and side-impact crash requirements through 2010.
For 2007, Ford has simplified the model lineup. The Safety Canopy side air-curtain system is now standard on Eddie Bauer and Limited. An auxiliary audio input jack is now standard, and power-retracting running boards and heated windshield wipers are available. And the available rear-seat DVD entertainment center comes with a larger, eight-inch screen.
The most important change for 2007 might be the new interior door handles, of all things. We found the door pulls on the 2006 models awkward, traceable to thick armrests engineered for crash protection. This situation has been improved for 2007.
Though car-based SUVs, or crossovers, such as the Ford Edge are gaining in popularity for their smoother ride, better handling, and easier interior access, the Explorer remains a good choice for families that tow. Explorer's truck-based chassis gives it towing capability, while its clever independent rear suspension smoothes the ride for back-seat passengers.
Ford Explorer XLT 2WD ($25,300): XLT 4WD ($27,595): Eddie Bauer 2WD ($28,300): Eddie Bauer 4WD ($30,595): Limited 2WD ($31,400): Limited 4WD ($33,659)
Between the elaborate lamps front and back, however, Explorer is a big, empty box with five large doors and a whole bunch of space inside.
Each Explorer trim level presents its own visual personality. XLT faces the world with a four-bar chrome grille, black wheel-lip moldings, and black roof rails. Black running boards are optional.
Bauer features a two-tone front bumper and an accent-color rear bumper; a three-bar chrome grille with side nostrils; accent-color wheel lip moldings; body-color exterior mirrors; silver roof rails with black end caps; and Pueblo Gold running boards.
Limited wears body-color front and rear bumpers; a chrome four-bar grille; chrome exterior mirrors; chrome roof rails with black end caps; body-color running boards; and body-color wheel lip moldings.
The seats are at once more supportive and more comfortable than in older Explorers, where we found them a bit hard. The colors and trims and combinations are elegant and tasteful, the metallic trims just about right, not overdone.
Second-row seats are available as a 60/40 split bench with recline adjustment, or as 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 in an '05 or earlier Explorer, 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.
The cargo floor is completely flat when all the seats are folded, with almost no forward rise (2 degrees as opposed to 10 in older models). 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, and a big eight-inch display.
The interior door handles are awkward to use, though this improves with familiarity.
The 4.0-liter single-overhead-cam V6 features variable valve timing and is rated at 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. It meets federal Tier II, Bin 4 emissions requirements for Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle II (ULEV II) status. With the V6, you get a five-speed automatic overdrive transmission.
The V8 is the latest from Ford's 4.6-liter Modular family, with single overhead camshafts and three valves per cylinder: two intake and one exhaust, for better breathing. It develops 292 horsepower, and 300 pound-feet of torque. The V8 delivers low emissions as well, meeting the Tier II, Bin 5 federal standard, which is compliant with California's Low Emissions Vehicle II (LEV II) standard. With the V8, you get a six-speed automatic with two overdrives, plus full electronic control of upshifting, downshifting and torque converter functions.
The steering has a nice, hefty feel at highway speeds, while still providing plenty of assist for parking. The suspension is relatively supple, giving the Explorer a nice ride on rough streets. Yet the Explorer does not lean excessively in corners, body roll is nicely controlled and there's a feeling of being solidly planted. The current chassis is some 63-percent stiffer than in older models; chassis rigidity is a key element for crisp handling and a smooth ride. Explorer manages to be isolated from the road, but well connected to it, at the same time.
Ford has done an exemplary job of insulating occupants from noise and vibration. The air conditioner is relatively quiet yet moves the air. Conversations are easily heard, the music sounds good, and the mirrors, with their square corners defying intuitive logic, are mercifully quiet, as are the tires.
The brakes work well, with much less pedal pressure and travel than before.
The Ford Explorer has never been better and represents an excellent choice among midsize sport utilities. It gets the basics right while paying attention to the details. We find the Explorer fully competitive in a tightly contested segment, succeeding as both an excellent machine and a high-value purchase. It's handsome, smooth, quiet, comfortable and competent.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Dearborn, Michigan.