For 2002, both the Mountaineer and Explorer benefit from a
top-to-bottom redo. Changes include new styling, but also a heaping helping of mechanical
upgrades, including revised rack-and-pinion steering and a beefed up frame structure. The
wheelbase is longer and the track wider for better ride quality and stability. And, for
safety, a side curtain airbag is now available that protects riders in the first and
second rows of seats from head injury in side-impact collisions.
The Mountaineer features satin finish aluminum accents inside and out. Outside, it
begins with the unique waterfall grille and includes machined alloy wheels and brush
guards on the tail lamps. Inside, silvery bits on the steering wheel, doors, and dash
glisten in a style that was found until recently only on futuristic concept cars.
The Mountaineer has special shock valveing for a sportier ride than the Explorer, and
it offers an exclusive all-wheel-drive option not available on the Ford. Designed more for
road safety than for rock climbing, the system sends most of the torque to the rear wheels
under normal conditions, but instantly transfers some forward when needed for safe
traction. It all works smoothly and without driver intervention.
The old Explorer/Mountaineer platform could get bouncy and punishing in the rough, but
much has changed since then. Independent suspensions front and rear take the hobbyhorse
motion out of the ride, and the Mountaineer now behaves more like a tall sports sedan than
a truck. Many buyers don't care to travel off-road, and for them two-wheel-drive is
offered. My test unit arrived so equipped.
There are no weak Mountaineers offered. The standard powerplant is a 4.0-liter single
overhead camshaft V6 that puts out 210 horsepower. For more oomph, the optional 240
horsepower 4.6-liter V8 is recommended. Replacing the old 5.0-liter V8, it delivers 25
more horsepower, while using newer, more efficient technology. Despite its size and power,
the Mountaineer qualifies as a low emission vehicle. Both the six and the eight cylinder
engines transfer power through a new, maintenance-free five-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel economy numbers posted on the window sticker are 14 city, 19 highway for the V8.
Thanks to the car's computer message center, I saw that I averaged 15.0 miles per gallon
over a busy week. That figure is nothing to celebrate about, but if you are hauling a
family of seven, the ratio of people per miles per gallon is quite good. And, the
Mountaineer uses regular gas.
As high tech power plants, both the V6 and V8 can go 100,000 miles before the first
scheduled tune-up. The Mountaineer does require oil changes, of course, but probably
little else. That's a big money saver.
The Mountaineer features standard four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock for safety.
They are improved for 2002 with larger rotors, revised linings for quieter operation, and
stiffer calipers for less noise and longer wear. And, the brakes now provide more
responsive pedal effort.
Inside, the big news is a standard third-row seat that enables Mountaineer owners to
carry seven people. The seats in the second row are split 40/20/40, and the end sections
easily fold away to allow access to the third row. Behind that third row is some storage
space, which expands to lots of space when the third seat is folded down flat. The rear
hatch opens in one piece or you can flip open the window for quick loading of light
objects. A roof-mounted luggage rack is standard.
My test Mountaineer, in Estate Green with Spruce Green accents, looked and felt like a
luxury car, thanks in part to a few options. The Convenience Group ($475) adds dual
illuminated visor mirrors, the Homelink system, and automatic headlamps. The Luxury Group
($1,685) includes dual automatic temperature control, an automatic dimming rear view
mirror, two-tone leather chairs, and upgraded alloy wheels.
One truly useful option is the Reverse Sensing System ($255). In reverse, a beep starts
as you approach an object (or person). The sound increases in frequency the closer you get
to the item. If the beeps blend into a solid tone, the next sound you will hear is the
Mountaineer bumping into something.
My tester also featured optional running boards $395), which look jaunty but can
transfer water to your pants as you exit the car. That is about as close as I can get to a
The new Mountaineer is satisfying to drive and pleasant to ride in. It styling is just
different enough to separate it from the more common Ford Explorer, and the improved
quality of assembly and materials is noticeable. Well equipped at $33,840, this
all-American SUV sits in the happy middle ground between small, basic mini-utes like the
Honda CRV and the super luxury cruisers like the Mercedes M-Class.