Car reviews - Ford - Explorer - range
Big, good vision, versatile cabin
Room for improvement
Big, heavy, thirsty, truck-like to drive, some quality issues, dubious safety record, fundamentally anti-environmental image
7 May 2003
THE Explorer could not come soon enough for Ford.
Before its launch in October, 1996, the company could only watch as mid-sized four-wheel drive wagons like the Toyota Prado and Nissan Pathfinder were increasingly adopted as urban family transportation.
In its native America the Explorer's 400,000 annual sales also mean it is the world's most popular four-wheel drive.
The Australian version is a facelift of the model launched in 1991. Ford has since revised the styling inside and out.
With design themes familiar to Taurus owners, the Explorer's cabin is car-like with easy to use and well sited controls.
But the driving position could be improved. The steering wheel is offset towards the centre of the vehicle and the overly soft seats lack support.
Points are won on the space front. The big Ford has one of the longest wheelbases in its class, allowing for plenty of passenger room.
There is space galore behind the rear seat. An Australian- developed third row of seats may be fitted to some Explorers.
Buyers can choose from three models and two V6 engines. The base XL features dual airbags, air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes, alloy wheels and traction control.
The mid-range XLT adds cruise control, central locking, power front seats, roof racks and power windows while leather trim, a power sunroof and six-stack CD player distinguish the Limited.
The rare five-speed manual Explorer XL or XLT is tied to a torquey (305Nm) but not so powerful (only 119kW) 4.0-litre pushrod V6 engine.
The manual is defined by slow gear changes with long throws and changes need to occur low down the rev range since the engine is noisy, gruff and breathless above 3500rpm.
The automatic is the better choice with its class-leading five- speed automatic transmission mated to a far more modern overhead cam, 4.0-litre V6. It punches out 153kW and 339Nm of power and torque respectively.
Willing to rev with instant power available on tap, this V6 and automatic are a perfect pair.
In overdrive fifth the Explorer cruises quietly while the lower four ratios are grouped close for good acceleration.
This powertrain contrasts vividly with the Explorer's archaic and truck-like leaf spring rear suspension. Great for hauling heavy loads perhaps, it lacks the finesse and suppleness of its more sophisticated coil sprung rivals.
Road irregularities throw the Explorer off the driver's chosen line, especially mid-corner, adversely affecting the unsettled ride and handling. At least the steering is responsive.
The Explorer has a permanent four-wheel drive system which Ford calls Control Trac. Similar to the popular viscous coupling arrangements, it uses an electro-magnetic clutch to send power to the wheels with the most grip.
On dry roads more than 90 per cent of the power is fed to the rear wheels and the system is capable of feeding as much as 98 per cent of drive to either set of wheels.
Limiting the vehicle's off-road abilities is a relatively small amount of ground clearance.
The Explorer is proving to be reliable. Minor electrical failures and some transmission leaks have been the extent of problems revealed in an extensive American survey. Almost 80 per cent of owners said they would buy another one.
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