2004 Ford Explorer Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
America's best-selling SUV.
Ford Explorer is the modern American station wagon. Ford sells more than 400,000 Explorers a year, making it the best-selling SUV and the sixth best-selling vehicle in America, and it's held these titles for a dozen years. Though quite capable as a tow vehicle and able to venture off the highway, most Explorers, like most SUVs, spend their entire lives shuttling people and performing the duties station wagons performed when Baby Boomers were growing up. The Explorer answers this call admirably and comfortably, which is part of the reason it's so popular.
The Explorer is roomy and comfortable. It's capable of seating seven people when equipped with the optional third-row seat that folds flat into the cargo floor when not being used. For more luxurious comfort, second-row sport bucket seating is now available on Eddie Bauer and Limited models.
Buyers can choose between V6 and V8 engines, but the V6 provides plenty of power unless you're pulling trailers or live in the Rocky Mountain states where the air is thin. Part of the reason for this is that the Explorer benefits from a superb five-speed automatic transmission.
Safety features abound: Anti-lock brakes come standard, and side-curtain air bags, designed to provide rollover protection, are optional and highly recommended. Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability system is available for all XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited models, providing improved traction and safety. Full-time all-wheel drive is available, providing better handling stability on slippery surfaces, and a tire-pressure monitoring system is available.
Ford redesigned and completely re-engineered the four-door Explorer two years ago (for model year 2002), and it's a much better vehicle. The current model rides on a wider track and a longer wheelbase, giving it a more solid, more stable stance. Its newly developed independent rear suspension gives it a smoother ride and better handling than SUVs with traditional live rear axles.
New Car Test Drive chose the Explorer as the best all-around sport-utility vehicle for 2003. It earned this title for its ability to carry four to seven people in comfort, pull a trailer, and venture off-road. The Explorer is rated to pull a trailer of up to 7,140 pounds when properly equipped, and though it does not excel at off-road travel, it can go most of the places most of us need to go.
The four-door Ford Explorer is available in a full range of trim levels: XLS, XLT, NBX, Eddie Bauer, and Limited. (We specify 'four-door' because the two-door Explorer Sport and Explorer Sport Trac versions are built on the previous-generation platform and are not covered here. All references to the Explorer in this review refer to the four-door models.)
An overhead-cam V6 engine is standard on all models. An overhead-cam V8 ($800) is an option for all models except the XLS. All models come standard with the five-speed automatic. Most offer a choice of two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive.
XLS ($26,285), XLS 4WD ($28,510), and XLS AWD ($28,510) come with cloth upholstery, AM/FM/CD/cassette, and a center console with a storage bin and cup holders. (And yes, 4WD and AWD are the same retail price.) An optional XLS Sport package ($1,175) adds the high series center console, black step bars, Medium Dark Platinum wheel lip moldings, 16-inch painted cast aluminum wheels (to replace the standard steel wheels) and front and rear floormats.
XLT ($29,025) gets nicer sport cloth upholstery, a six-way power driver's seat, the Medium Dark Platinum exterior trim, and more luxury features, such as a temperature gauge and compass, rear map/dome lights with second row reading lamp, outside approach lighting, fog lamps, extra power outlets, and an illuminated keypad for keyless entry. An upgraded center console offers a tissue box, power points, pencil holder, and coin holder in addition to cup holders and a storage bin. XLT comes with aluminum alloy wheels, a new chrome grille and black-grain outside door handles. Four-wheel-drive Control Trac and All Wheel Drive models retail for $31,250. Leather trimmed upholstery with a six-way power driver's seat is available for $655. XLT buyers can choose a $1,175 Sport package consisting of 17-inch machined aluminum wheels, P245/65R17 All-Terrain OWL tires, Platinum gloss step bars, cladding, wheel lip moldings and two-tone front and rear fascias.
NBX ($1,175) is actually a package designed for outdoor enthusiasts. NBX includes a Yakima LoadWarrior roof rack, which features a cargo basket made of heavy-duty steel, two-tone bumpers, body cladding, wheel-lip moldings, step bars, front tow hooks, and 17-inch aluminum wheels with P245/65R17 all-terrain tires. The NBX interior is trimmed with unique seat fabric, special rubber floormats, and a soft liner for the cargo area with a storage bag.
Eddie Bauer ($33,100) and Limited ($33,975) come with leather trimmed seating surfaces, automatic dual-zone climate control, 290-watt six-CD stereo with seven speakers, and wider tires. Six-way adjustable heated power seats with dual lumbar supports are used in front, and the driver's seat has a three-position memory feature. Four-wheel drive adds $1965. The top two Explorer models differ in their distinctive trim: Eddie Bauer comes with Arizona beige bumpers, moldings, lower bodyside cladding, 17-inch satin-nickel wheels and grille, and P245/65R17 all-terrain tires. Limited uses monochromatic bumpers, moldings and cladding with a chrome grille and unique 17-inch chrome wheels. The Limited model is available in new Ceramic White Tri-Coat.
Options include third-row seating ($670), auxiliary air conditioning ($610), power-adjustable pedals ($120), Reverse Sensing System ($255), and a power moonroof ($800). A Trailer Towing Prep Package ($395) replaces the standard Class II hitch with a Class III hitch and adds a 3.73 limited-slip rear axle.
Instead of conventional front side-impact airbags, Explorer offers an optional ($560) Safety Canopy Air Curtain System. Located in the roof, it is designed to help protect first- and second-row outboard occupants during side-impact or rollover accidents. The safety canopy is designed to improve side-impact protection by staying inflated for a longer period. Ford has done a great deal of research on this technology and we strongly reco.
The current Ford Explorer is the same length overall as the pre-2002 models, but it rides on a longer wheelbase (by 2 inches) and a wider track. Pushing the wheels out toward the corners makes the Explorer more stable and more comfortable. Lowered frame rails keep its front and rear bumpers at about the same height as those of a Ford Taurus, improving safety for the non-SUV drivers around you.
Explorer's styling is fresh and contemporary. Though ubiquitous, it is a handsome, good-looking vehicle. Front and rear fascia are smoothly integrated, while jeweled headlamps and tail lamps give it a sophisticated look. Yet, it clearly evokes the previous-generation Explorer. No one will have trouble identifying it, and few will notice it at all. Don't expect people to turn and stare when you drive by. Turning heads is not always the objective, however, and the more time we have spent with the Explorer the more its looks have grown on us.
Hitting the Unlock button on the key fob illuminates the approach lights mounted on the bottoms of the outside mirrors, enhancing security and making it easier to find your way at night. Uplevel models come standard with an illuminated keypad on the door for keyless entry. The keypad doesn't improve the appearance of the Explorer, but it continues to be a popular feature among loyal owners.
The Explorer is a comfortable vehicle, even on long trips. The Eddie Bauer seats were comfortable throughout nine-hour driving stints on a 2,700-mile cross-country trip, and its many convenience features make it pleasant while driving and when stopping.
The Eddie Bauer model comes with the traditional beige steering wheel and pinhole leather seating material. Handsome pecan wood accents lend a luxurious appearance. Light-colored trim on the inside A-pillars and grab handles add to the light, airy atmosphere. It's a successful execution, though the mouse-fur roof liner is nothing to write home about. The leather-trimmed upholstery is attractive. However, we wish Ford would have stitched leather all the way around to the inside edge of the seat bottom instead of using carpet there to save money.
The front seats are comfortable. They are wider and offer more fore-and-aft travel than before. We found the cloth seats in the XLT comfortable, firm, and supportive, with lots of adjustments. The same held true for the leather seats in the Eddie Bauer model.
Seat heaters are part of the Eddie Bauer way of living. They keep you warm while the truck is still heating up. The buttons that control them are mounted in an awkward location, on the sides of seats. Reaching down to the side of the driver's seat, the left hand is confronted with an array of seat adjusters; finding and pressing the seat-heater button is a challenge. When you succeed, however, a small indicator lights up on the climate-control display. Likewise, it isn't always easy to find the seat-height adjuster. Rake is easy to adjust, and there's a knob on the up-level seats for cranking in some lumbar support.
Adjustable pedals, a tilt steering wheel, and long seat travel help the Explorer fit a wide variety of body types. Big coat hooks accommodate thick hangers and big loads of dry cleaning, something few manufacturers get right. Nicely designed cubbies with rubber mats provide space for wallet, sunglasses, a pen, cans, and bottles. A relatively large center console keep odds and ends in check. Interior door handles seem a bit awkward at first, but that went away with familiarization. Map pockets on the insides of the doors are handy and swell at the end to hold water bottles, but wouldn't accommodate a one-liter water bottle. The front power outlet was positioned well for a cell phone, but like most, was a bit of a reach for a radar detector. The trip computer came in handy, calculating the distance to an empty fuel tank.
The six-disc in-dash CD player sounds good and is easy to operate, with large, clearly marked controls; it worked very well for books on CD, which take up multiple discs, and I found I could easily rewind to replay passages missed while concentrating on driving.
The second row of seats, the row we recommend for those who don't get to drive or sit up front, is quite comfortable. Sliding your feet under the front seats increases legroom. Many people prefer second-row bucket seats, which are more comfortable but only accommodate two passengers.
Third-row seating is available. In fact, the decision to add third-row seating drove the design and engineering of the current Explorer. As a result, Ford has done an excellent job of making the third row as roomy as possible, while making it flip quickly out of the way when it isn't needed. The third row offers as much headroom as the second row, but legroom, shoulder room and hip room are significantly compromised. After flipping the second-row seat neatly out of the way, you can climb back there, fold the second-row seat back into position and slide your feet underneath, which provides somewhat tolerable legroom. It isn't comfortable for an adult, however. There's little shoulder room, and the seat itself is a bit hard on the outboard edge; it pushes you away from the outboard side toward the center. It'll work okay for small children, but if you need.
The Ford Explorer is smooth and stable on the highway and handles well on winding roads. The available V8 engine offers excellent acceleration out of corners. Ride quality and handling are quite good, greatly improved over pre-2002 models.
The Explorer rides on a four-wheel independent suspension with coil springs all around. It's a sophisticated setup and it works very well. (Crude by comparison, the previous Explorer used torsion bars in front and a live rear axle on leaf springs.) The independent rear suspension offers better lateral stiffness yet more fore/aft compliance than a live rear axle. That means both ride and handling are better.
The Explorer delivers a smooth ride on rough roads. Bumpy corners don't upset it, and it feels stable in fast, sweeping turns. The Explorer is very stable at high speeds and feels comfortably secure in bad weather. We felt safe and confident while pulling a trailer all day through a tropical storm in Tennessee. Just knowing the Explorer had Auto 4WD and ABS was comforting when it was raining buckets. It's still a truck, though. Tire whir is heard; road vibration is felt. But the ride is more comfortable, less jouncy than, say, the Nissan Pathfinder.
Off road, the Explorer has never measured up to the Toyota 4Runner or Land Rover Discovery, and the new generation doesn't change that. The Explorer is not designed to tackle the Rubicon Trail or any other seriously rugged terrain. The current model is better than the old one, however, and it is perfectly capable on primitive roads. In other words, it makes a fine vehicle for trout fishermen, kayakers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Ground clearance is increased by an inch over the previous generation, and shorter front and rear overhangs offer better approach and departure angles, all of which means you don't scrape the ground as much as before. If primitive roads and deep snow are the extent of your off-road driving, then the Explorer will serve admirably.
The optional Control Trac four-wheel-drive system (4WD) works great. We were surprised by the amount of grip the Explorer had on a muddy, snow-covered two-track in the Arizona high country near Sedona. Ford has refined this system to make it more transparent to the driver, while improving its abilities in limited-traction situations. The normal driving mode is Auto 4WD; there is no two-wheel-drive mode. In Auto 4WD, Control Trac directs power according to input from sensors that compare grip between the front and rear wheels. If the rear wheels lose traction, for example, the optimal amount of power is transferred to the front tires where there's more grip. Using a dedicated controller, the system checks for slipping tires 50 times a second and can anticipate situations, such as hard acceleration, that are likely to cause the wheels to spin. It feels secure on wet pavement, gravel, mud, and snow. When the going gets rougher, press the 4WD HI button, which effectively locks the front and rear driveshafts together. This can be useful for severe off-road or winter conditions, though Auto 4WD does such a great job of transferring torque that 4WD HI is almost irrelevant in practical terms. Driving on a muddy, primitive trail, I couldn't tell the difference between Auto 4WD and 4WD HI. It may be possible to detect subtle slip in Auto 4WD on slippery, snow-covered surfaces, but the bottom line is that you can leave it in Auto 4WD for all but the worst conditions. 4WD Low works well for creeping over truly rugged terrain. We found it does a good job of engine braking down steep grades, and we suspect it would be helpful on slippery boat ramps.
The optional AdvanceTrac all-wheel-drive system (AWD) takes four-wheel drive to another level with a sophisticated traction-control system that adds stability by regulating side-to-side torque distribution. It does this better than traditional mechanical systems. AdvanceTrac applies braking selectively when it det.
The Ford Explorer helped usher in the era of the sport-utility as a family vehicle, and was the first SUV to break into the list of the 10 best-selling vehicles in America (in 1991). Ford Explorer rides smoothly, handles well, and the interior packaging is well thought out and executed. It's a great vehicle for long trips. Comfortable and convenient, it quickly becomes an old friend.
Explorer XLS 2WD ($26,285); XLS 4WD ($28,510); XLS AWD ($28,510); XLT 2WD ($29,025); XLT 4WD ($31,250); XLT AWD ($31,250); Eddie Bauer 2WD ($33,100); Eddie Bauer 4WD ($35,325); Eddie Bauer AWD ($35,325); Limited 2WD ($33,975); Limited 4WD ($36,200); Limited AWD ($36,200).
Louisville, Kentucky; St. Louis, Missouri.
Options As Tested
4.6-liter V8 engine ($800); Safety Canopy air curtain system ($560); auxiliary air conditioning ($610); Reverse Sensing System ($255); third-row seat package ($670); Class III/IV trailer package ($395).
Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer AWD ($35,325).
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