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First Oz drive: Ford's Explorer transformed
A major overhaul of the Explorer brings it up to the mark with its main rivals
30 Oct 2001
By JUSTIN LACY
FORD could have a winner on its hands with the all-new Explorer four-wheel drive previewed to the media in the hinterland surrounding Noosa this week.
After a couple of attempts trying to position the current model against established competitors, Ford has given the new wagon - which goes on sale from late December - a major overhaul for a renewed assault on the Australian market.
The new Explorer range offers a choice of two grades, three drivetrain configurations - manual and auto for the V6, with auto only for the V8 - and two seating options.
Ford has sharpened its pencil to keep Explorer pricing in the same ballpark as the outgoing model, but with better equipment levels.
The entry level six-cylinder XLT variant with the five-speed manual starts at $50,500, rising to $52,000 for the five-speed automatic version, while the XLT V8 is $54,000.
The range-topping Limited model comes in at $64,000, which makes it about 6 per cent more expensive than its predecessor, but that was V6 not V8 powered.
Ford says the Explorer is all-new, which in this instance is not just marketing hype as the changes are substantial and significant.
The traditional ladder frame chassis remains but it is now fully boxed, instead of the C-section frame used previously.
The change is said to have produced a 350 per cent improvement in chassis stiffness, along with a 26 per cent increase in vertical and lateral bending, which is a good indication of how far off the mark the company was with the previous model.
Independent rear suspension (IRS) has replaced the previous live axle, leaf spring arrangement and has enabled the rear floor of the vehicle to be lowered by nearly 18cm, which in turn provides space for the introduction of a third row seat.
The front suspension is also new with an independent, upper and lower arm, coil spring set-up replacing the previous torsion bar system.
The 4.0-litre SOHC V6 engine is now standard and has been revised with a new equal-length plastic intake system to produce 157kW of power at 5100rpm and 344Nm of torque at 4000rpm.
A V8 engine is introduced to the Explorer for the first time with the 4.6-litre unit coming from the same engine family as the Mustang's powerplant. Maximum power of 178kW is developed at 5100rpm while peak torque of 382Nm arrives at 3700rpm.
But in the four-wheel drive application it makes do with two-valves per-cylinder and a single overhead camshaft per bank - the Mustang has four-valves per-cylinder and DOHC - to deliver more torque at low revs.
The V6 engine is matched to a revised five-speed manual transmission or a new five-speed automatic that is also used with the V8 engine. The new auto can handle greater torque outputs than the previous transmission while its single aluminium casting is said to reduce noise, vibration and harshness (NVH).
Ford's Control Trac four-wheel drive system remains although it has been revised with increased electronic control and it is now operated by a push-button switch system instead of the former rotary dial.
"4x4 Auto" is the default setting, which sends 96 per cent of drive to the rear wheels and the remainder to the front, although all the engine's torque can be redirected to the front wheels when the system detects rear-wheel slippage.
"4x4 High" locks the front and rear driveshafts together for increased traction but is only recommended for off-road conditions, while "4x4 Low" brings in a sliding gear with a 2.48:1 reduction ratio for serious off-road driving or high-torque situations.
Dimension changes for the new model have resulted in a wider body, longer wheelbase and wider front and rear tracks, although overall length and height have been maintained.
The previous model was widely criticised for its narrow track and nose up, bum down stance but those issues have been addressed and the Explorer now looks suitably off-road macho.
Styling changes, particularly at the front and rear, have given the car a fresh, contemporary look although it is still unmistakably an Explorer.
The rear tailgate treatment has adopted a split rear door in the same style as one of its main competitors, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, with the rear glass opening separately if needed.
Standard equipment on the XLT is extensive and includes dual front airbags, ABS anti-lock braking, air-conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, cruise control, trip computer, six-way electric driver's seat, in-dash six-disc CD player, 40-20-40 split/fold rear seat and the US-requisite minimum of five cup holders.
The high grade Limited model adds side curtain airbags, leather upholstery, climate control air-conditioning, an electrochromatic rear view mirror and steering wheel-mounted climate and audio controls.
A third row seat is standard on the Limited but can be fitted as an option on the XLT for $2500. The package also includes a separate rear air-conditioning system and an overhead console with compartments for sunglasses and a garage opener.
Both models get 16-inch alloy wheels although each is a different five-spoke design, while the Limited is distinguished by side steps, a silver grille with chrome surround and body coloured bumpers, side cladding and wheel arch extensions.
Ford is forecasting 2000 sales for the new Explorer next year, on top of 4000 sales for the Escape "soft-roader" that was released earlier this year, to give the Blue Oval brand a substantially increased footing in the off-road market - it sold just 1500 four-wheel drives last year.
But the company says it can source more cars if the new Explorer proves to be a sales success, as the two US factories that build Explorer - in St Louis and Louisville - will produce 400,000 units over the next 12 months.
Explorer XLT V6 $50,000
Explorer XLT V6 auto $52,000
Explorer XLT V8 auto $54,000
Explorer Limited V8 auto $64,000
DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:AS soon as you drive off in the new Explorer, it is apparent that this vehicle is a big improvement on its predecessor.
The superseded model's truck-like characteristics have been replaced by a level of comfort and refinement that is much closer to car-like. The transformation is on a par to that achieved by Mitsubishi when it moved from NL to NM Pajero.
The off-roader is now just as at home on the black top as it is tackling rugged bush tracks. In fact, overall it is now much better in both environments.
The stiffer chassis and new suspension make it a much more comfortable and responsive on-road proposition, while over dirt roads and corrugations it remains planted and predictable where the outgoing model would be bucking and bouncing all over the place.
The steering is nicely weighted, particularly at speed, which makes the Explorer easy to place despite its considerable size.
But like most large four-wheel drives that wear the big off-road rubber, the Explorer does move around noticeably on its tyres, although it's no worse than its competitors.
Both engines are well matched to the overall package although the V6 engine's shorter length gives it slightly better turn in and responsiveness - it has two fewer cylinders so there is less mass hanging beyond the front axle.
The new five-speed automatic transmission is a smooth shifting unit that manages to blur the changes from first to second under heavy throttle in a CVT-like manner.
You can feel the extra total weight in the new car - between 100-150kg - but it gives it more of a solid feeling than one of excess mass.
The often suspect nature of US-built cars with respect to fit and finish seems to have been addressed with the Explorer. The interior is solid and for the most part rattle free.
The only niggle was some flexing of the differing plastic surfaces where the door trim and dashboard meet, causing some vibrations.
If Ford can convince four-wheel drive buyers to disregard their preconceptions about the Explorer and take the new model for a test drive, then the US-built off-roader may be a solid boost for the Blue Oval brand.
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