The Explorer is popular not because it's
flashy or pretty, but because it simply does its job well. It's rugged, powerful,
comfortable, and even highly refined after a complete redesign for 2002. Major changes
last year included two family-friendly godsends: a car-like independent rear suspension
and a third-row seat.
While the new suspension is a huge improvement over the previous
generation Explorer, it still feels like a truck from behind the wheel. Seating position
is high, which provides great visibility but allows surprisingly little headroom, and the
ride is relatively stiff and bouncy. If you want a vehicle that feels like a car but looks
like a truck, buy one of the car-based wimp wagons.
But if you're looking for a real truck that can drive off road, tow
a 7,000-pound yacht, and be comfortable enough to haul kids to soccer practice, the
Explorer's for you.
Changes for 2003 are minor, mainly involving equipment packages and
safety features designed to eliminate the nasty "R" word - rollovers. Ford's
AdvanceTrac system, now standard on all models, is intended to keep the Explorer upright
even when drivers make mistakes, like overcorrecting after a tire blowout.
In case the Explorer tips over in a wreck, a "safety
canopy" is designed to cushion passengers with side-curtain air bags. Better yet, the
front air bags have an advanced system that tailors their explosion force - or completely
turns them off - based on the severity of the wreck and the passengers weight.
Pretty cool, eh?
In addition to the traditional versions of the Explorer, Ford now
offers the NBX package with a large cargo basket and two-tone bumpers. It also has bigger
wheels and tires for a tough, active look.
Two engines are offered, both of which are smooth and quiet - at
least as far as truck engines go. A 4.0-liter, 210-horsepower V6 is standard, but a
4.6-liter, 238-horsepower V8 is more fitting for the brawny Explorer. Both are great
engines to chose from.
Inside, the Explorer can range from spartan to luxurious, depending
on how much you're willing to pay. The top-of-the-line Limited model we tested cost nearly
$41,000, which included enough gadgets and leather to feel almost like those fancy-pants,
car-based imports, none of which come close to matching the Explorer's versatility. More
popular models include the base XLS at $25,970, the very popular XLT at $28,745, and the
classy Eddie Bauer at $32,670.
Depending on how much you want to spend, the Explorer's interior can
range from basic to extravagant. An available DVD player, new for 2003, is great for
entertaining back-seat passengers, and the optional third-row seat lets you squeeze in
some additional pint-sized passengers.
Compared to the Explorer of just a few years ago, today's version
feels much more upscale and refined, almost like a luxury car in some aspects. Yet even as
it becomes more practical like a modern station wagon, it hasn't lost the rugged nature
that made it famous in the first place. That's why this superstar doesn't fade.
Why buy it? Its great mix of practicality and rugged performance is
perfect for families who need a truck-based SUV for towing or off-road driving. Plus its
independent suspension gives it a pleasant ride around town.
With the Ford Explorer, what you see is what you get. It's a tough
truck that looks like a tough truck, not a watered-down wannabe, and that's one of the
reasons it's been the best-selling SUV for more than a decade.