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Car reviews - Ford - Explorer - XLT V8 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space, smooth V8, taut body, smooth ride
Room for improvement
Limited abilities off-road, infuriating automatic door locks

21 Mar 2002

FORD'S much-maligned Explorer has made a dramatic credibility leap with its latest model, carving its way past most of the field to join the front-runners in terms of on-road comfort, handling and performance.

The new medium-duty off-roader may present a few familiar design cues but it is a very different vehicle in the way it performs and, when you observe it closely, in the way it looks.

The previous Explorer was admired by many but looked kind of out of touch with its sometimes strange curves and sharp-edged, overdone wheel arches.

The new one has a certain solid credibility about it, tending more towards slabiness than curvaceousness, and has a longer wheelbase and a wider track to improve things such as ride quality and handling surety. Slightly more generous body dimensions also mean the Explorer (already a very long vehicle for its class) is a better fit inside and is able to comfortably accept an all-new option - the availability of a third-row seat that takes maximum seating capacity up to seven people.

The increased interior dimensions also include a worthwhile upgrade in headroom, which is a side benefit of another feature making the Explorer a new centre of attention in its class - a fully independent suspension system. Ford is joining the growing list of "proper" 4WDs utilising full independence to improve performance in the conditions it is used the most - on the road.

It does not stop there either. For a mere $2000 or thereabouts over base V6-engined versions, it is now possible to specify an all-alloy, 4.6-litre V8 straight out of the Mustang family and with an output of 178kW. The V8 weighs about the same as the still available V6 (the more sophisticated German OHC powerplant that was only available in five-speed auto versions of the previous model. Other versions used a more primitive pushrod V6).

This gives the Explorer a handy credibility factor in this class where trailer-towing is an often considered possibility. The Explorer is rated with a maximum towing capacity of 2500kg and comes with a standard towbar to underline this - although the gooseneck is only rated at 1600kg.

So it is no longer wise to overlook the Explorer, even if it seems a little pricey in base form, where it sits quite a bit above natural rivals such as the Nissan Pathfinder and Mitsubishi Challenger, and more in line with a Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Prado or Mitsubishi Pajero.

But, considering the V8 is only a $2000 jump over the V6, it is really another dimension of 4WD, more in the realms of Jeep's Grand Cherokee which it exceeds in every measurement, including weight.

It is no surprise when driving the new Explorer that it feels something like a Grand Cherokee in the way it rides and generally deports itself. The big difference is that where the Jeep wallows and wanders, the Ford steers with a certain degree of precision and does not tend to skip around when the road surface deteriorates. Certainly it feels heavy but it leaves the driver with a greater feeling of control over its destiny, especially when being hunted along.

The downside is when the Explorer ventures into the bush. Here an obvious ground clearance deficit (just take a peek at the longitudinal rails hanging down underneath), a quite lengthy wheelbase and the shortcomings of independent suspension come into play and work the sophisticated traction-apportioning electronics very hard.

Ford calls its system Control Trac, an arrangement that allows the driver to select between automatic 4WD, full-time 4WD and low range full-time 4WD merely by pressing a button high on the dash. In auto mode, the system operates as a two-wheel drive but switches to 4WD when the occasion demands in the blink of an eye, much like the system used in Nissan's Pathfinder.

This only adds to the Explorer's already vastly improved on-road dynamics but, like we said, it gets to work pretty hard overcoming the shortfalls of the combined low ground clearance (although Ford says it is better than the previous model) and the not very long travel independent suspension.

The upside, of course, is the on-road behaviour and here the Explorer feels massively solid, smooth-riding and quite responsive to the steering wheel. At more than two tonnes, it is not surprising the Ford is a substantial feeling 4WD.

The surprise here is the 4.6-litre V8's ability to drag all this around without being a ridiculous consumer of fuel. The power and torque figures are pretty reasonable, sure, but the latter tends to come in at fairly high rpm (382Nm at 4000rpm) so a little bit of persuasive prodding is still needed to get the whole rig moving. Do this, however, and you are not likely to go much past an average of 14 litres per 100km - which is precisely what the official AS2877 figures of 17L/100km city and 11L/100km highway suggest.

Much of this has to do with the combination of the V8's efficiency (it's an all-alloy, single overhead camshaft design with coil-on-plug ignition and state of the art electronics) and the abilities of the five-speed automatic. It is described by Ford as a wide-ratio transmission, uses a single aluminium casing for light weight and reduced flex, and runs a much lower first gear for improved take-off (partly explaining why it is described as a wide-ratio gearbox).

So, driving the Explorer around town, there's no need to be really fearful of how quickly the next refuel is about to come up as it tends to be more frugal than, say, a Grand Cherokee V8. With the fuel tank upped to 85 litres (Ford confidently quotes precisely 85.2 litres), this means a workable cruising range over 500km in normal highway use.

The V8 drives nicely, very smoothly and quietly, the shifts through the five-speed auto coming with virtually no impact. It is perhaps a little disappointing that the V8's note has been virtually eliminated - although Ford does say it engineered in some rumble to please customers.

One glaring annoyance does stand out when loping along in the Explorer. The automatic door lock activates virtually from the first wheel rotation so that passengers waiting, say, for the car to backed out of the driveway before entering find themselves locked out. Likewise, when the driver jumps out of the car and heads for the passenger door to retrieve a suitcase from the floor, there is no way of opening it other than going through the whole cycle of centrally locking, then operating the two-stage unlock - or walking around the car and unlocking via the control on the driver's door.

In terms of comfort and useability, the Explorer rates very well. Yes, there is more room than before and because the hip point is lower, it is easier to get in and out of. Increased foot room is appreciated by the driver and the rearmost seats do offer reasonable headroom via the floor-lowering made possible by the rear suspension configuration. The tailgate's two-piece opening is handy too, although once again the central locking system requires some fiddling before the latch can be operated.

Folding either the centre row or rearmost seats is as easy as any 4WD we can think of and the three-seat centre row configuration is great for slipping larger items into the rear compartment, while still leaving room for at least one centre row passenger.

The interior is well fitted out with dual front airbags, air-conditioning (with four roof outlets and extra, roof-mounted controls when seven seats are optioned), cruise control and trip computer all standard. The driver's seat power-adjusts for reach, cushion tilt and height, but the backrest is reclined manually, via a lever rather than a knob.

The dash is well presented, with the most frequently used controls easily accessed, although the indicator lever is on the left of the steering column. The same lever contains the twist-grip controls for the windscreen and rear window wipers. Cruise control is on the (adjustable for height only) steering wheel and easy to use.

The Explorer seems pretty well put together, with not a squeak or rattle emanating from the vehicle during our extended test period. The claim that the Ford is 350 per cent stiffer, with a 26 per cent improvement in vertical and lateral bending, probably accounts for much of this.

Entry level pricing may seem a little high at more than $50,000 for the manual transmission XLT V6, but the small premium for the auto-only V8 shows the Explorer in a different light. The nearest V8 4WD, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, is virtually on a par with the Ford.

So do not discount this promising new 4WD. For on-road performance and sheer lugging power it is right up there and for interior space it's got little to be ashamed of either, even if it does not offer the sheer capacity and load height of a Pajero. Just don't expect it to engage in a serious bush-bashing session in company with a Nissan Patrol or Toyota LandCruiser.

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