Big New Kid in Town

Tow Test: Ford Explorer Limited

The Ford Explorer is the sport utility vehicle category's 900-pound gorilla. And that enviable status is sure to continue now that Ford has lifted America's favorite multipurpose truck to a higher plane. The 2002 Explorer hits showrooms this spring with comprehensive changes from road to roof. Track width, wheelbase, and overall width have all been increased a couple of inches. Door openings are wider and sills are lower for easier access to the interior. Fully boxing the frame members increases their resistance to twisting. In pursuit of a smoother ride and superior handling, front torsion bars have been replaced by coil springs and the rear suspension is an independent design. The standard 4.0-liter SOHC V-6 is tuned up with more torque, and an optional 240-hp 4.6-liter SOHC V-8 replaces the 5.0-liter pushrod V-8.Inside, more sophisticated underpinnings have cleared space for a third row of seats. New are side curtain air bags that stay inflated for several seconds after a lateral collision.

To check Ford engineers' stats, we borrowed a prototype Explorer during its introduction in western Arizona. A Cheetah 24 catamaran riding a Hoss tandem-axle trailer provided 4,900 pounds of ballast, well within the 4x4 Explorer's 7,000-pound rated capacity.

Looks are deceiving here because the new Explorer's appearance is surprisingly similar to the previous design. But the instant you fire up the smoother, sweeter running V-8, it's clear that the engineers were busy. The smaller but more energetic engine gets its payload rolling smartly off the mark and hustles to cruising speed. Step into the throttle on the highway and the five-speed automatic transmission swaps gears without a hitch to assist the tach needle's climb toward a 6100 rpm redline. The incessant nudges of a heavy trailer on a less than perfectly smooth road are nicely damped by the extra weight and girth built into this model. Pitch and wobble don't play here.

The new Explorer accurately follows the driver's lead - its steering system has minimal friction and a tighter connection to the front wheels. That, in combination with more car-like suspension, yields an SUV that's fun to drive with or without a load in tow.

Although we provoked wheelspin in Low on a launch ramp, a sensible foot on the gas pedal with the Control Trac 4x4 selector placed in Auto or High yields a smooth, stable transition from lapping water to dry land. Standard gear includes 16" 70-series radial tires and the Goodyear Wrangler rubber on BOATING's tester offered excellent wet traction with quiet pavement running. Inside, the third row seat folds flat. By splitting the hinged glass portion of the liftgate at a lower level, Ford has diminished the pain of loading groceries or sports gear.

MODEL Ford Explorer Limited
Engine 4.6-liter SOHC V-8
Net hp/rpm 240/4750
Net torque (ft-lb/rpm) 290/4000
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Front suspension control arms, coil springs
Rear suspension control arms, coil springs
Wheelbase (in.) 113.7
Length (in.) 189.5
Width (in.) 72.1
Height (in.) 71.9
Brakes (front/rear) vented disc/disc; standard 4-wheel ABS
Tires Goodyear Wrangler AP, P245/70SR-16, all terrain
Curb weight (lbs.) 4,340
Towing capacity (lbs.) 7,000
Cargo capacity (max. cu. ft.) 88
Fuel capacity (gal.) 22.5
Estimated city/highway towing fuel economy (avg. mpg) 8.0
Price (as tested, estimated) $37,000

LAST WORD. A major infusion of clever improvements and advanced technology moves the Ford Explorer to the top of the SUV heap.