Explorer was completely redesigned for the 2006 model year and we were pleased with the new steering, new suspension, and 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 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.
All Explorers offer a smooth ride and decent handling for such big, heavy vehicles. The interiors are pleasant, with only oddly designed door panels to complain about. With five, six, or seven-passenger seating configurations, customers can outfit their Explorers to fit their passenger and cargo carrying needs.
With the V8 engine, the Explorer is rated to tow up to a whopping 7,310 pounds; that's about as much as a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a Hemi. And Explorer is rated to carry up to 1,531 pounds of payload.
Explorer has earned the best possible impact protection rating in the federal 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, according to 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 2008, Ford adds new standard and optional features. Side curtain airbags are standard on 2008 models, voice activation is added to the optional navigation system, and top-line Limited models get standard power adjustable pedals and a universal garage door opener. Due later in the 2008 model year are three new options: a capless fueling system, 20-inch wheels and Ford's Sync entertainment and communication system.
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 ($25,755): XLT 4WD ($28,050): Eddie Bauer 2WD ($28,100): Eddie Bauer 4WD ($30,395): Limited 2WD ($31,870): Limited 4WD ($34,165)
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.
Eddie 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 supportive and comfortable. The colors and trims are elegant and tasteful, and the use of metallic trim is not overdone.
Second-row seats are available as a 60/40 split bench with recline adjustment, or as two captain's chairs with fold-down armrests and a center console. The bucket seats are more comfortable for adults, but the bench seats fold down better for cargo.
The third row, when ordered, 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. With three rows of 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. For 2008, it can now be operated via voice commands.
Ford's Sync communications and entertainment system, due late in the 2008 model year, can recognize Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, access their phonebooks, and play calls and read text messages through the speakers. It also has a USB interface to connect with iPods and other MP3 players. Voice commands and/or steering wheel buttons can be used to control all functions.
The rear-seat entertainment system's drop-down screen seems small a bit small. When in position for viewing, the video screen combines with the rear head restraints to block the driver's view to the rear. Outward visibility elsewhere is good, with less obstruction than expected from the thick C-pillars.
We don't care for the door handles. Ford designed the interior door panels so the armrests and door pulls would supplement the impact protection hardware built into the door's innards. Thus, the armrests and door pulls were separated, with the pulls positioned below the armrests. This poor ergonomic positioning makes it a bear to grab hold of the pulls, and they offer too little leverage to make closing the doors easy.
Both the V6 and the V8 are smooth and quiet. With the lighter V6, the Explorer is a bit easier to turn and maneuver, but both engines are pleasant and competent. Choose the V8 if you pull trailers. The fuel economy hit is negligible.
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 and a maximum towing capacity of 5,395 pounds. The V6 gets an EPA-rated 14/20 mpg with 2WD, 13/19 mpg with 4WD.
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. A V8-powered 4x2 Explorer can tow up to 7,310 pounds. The V8 gets an EPA-rated 13/20 mpg with 2WD, 13/19 mpg with 4WD, the latter figure matching that of the V6 4WD.
We noticed some slack in the drivetrain in some situations. After stopping for a stop sign then stepping on the gas, there was a momentary lag, as if we were waiting for the driveline hook up. This was annoying.
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. The Explorer does not lean excessively in corners for a heavy sport utility, 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, but it does its job. 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 the right amount of travel and required pedal pressure.
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.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Dearborn, Michigan, with Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago and Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.