2007 Ford Explorer Expert Review:Autoblog
"All dressed up and nowhere to go" might best describe the situation in which the 2006 Ford Explorer found itself when it appeared in showrooms last year. The not-quite "all new" model had donned a new sheetmetal suit to attract suitors, and underneath the skin it received upgrades that improved the power, fuel economy and refinement of this SUV all-star.
Despite critics heaping praise on the new Explorer, it's being stood up by consumers. Though Ford had hoped the 2006 model would lift the SUV’s sagging sales in 2005, the year ended with 99,545 fewer Explorers sold than in 2004, a drop of 29.3 percent.
What happened? Why has this SUV archetype begun to fall out of favor with the very suburban clientele that made it a sales superstar? We’ll examine why in our three-part review of the 2006 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer 4X4, beginning after the jump.
A drop in sales of 29.3 percent may sound like a death rattle to some, but nearly all of Ford’s vehicles saw double digit declines in 2005, and the Explorer still maintained its comfy spot as the brand’s No. 2 best-selling vehicle (behind the unbeatable F-150). Though the Explorer’s sales continued to drop even after the 2006 model was introduced, we’re fairly certain things would’ve been much worse had this redesign not taken place.
Nearly everything about the Explorer has been improved for 2006. In fact, the exterior refreshening is the least significant item on the list. While the changes made to the vehicle’s appearance are innocuous enough, the new chrome grille is much taller than before-- almost Audi-like in how the chrome plunges down, swallowing the air intake. Its vertical height has the uncomfortable effect, however, of making the Explorer look thinner and taller from the front than last year’s model.
This Explorer, however, deserves more kudos for what’s new underneath its metal than how it’s shaped. For instance, the first V8 in an Explorer happened to be the Mustang’s fabled 5.0 and Ford has again borrowed from its pony car parts bin to produce this Explorer’s new 292-hp, 4.6L V8. The muscle car motor has been tuned more for towing here than time slips, and it's mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission that’s nearly invisible in its operation. The new driveline can be given credit for an improvement in fuel economy, as well, which is up to 14 city/20 highway. On a 400-mile trip with the Explorer during our first few days together we saw an average in the mid-17 mpg range.
The Explorer’s all-independent suspension has also been retuned for 2006, specifically the rear. The new setup is a definite improvement that further blurs the line between body-on-frame and unibody SUVs. During our roadtrip the Explorer excelled at providing a serene ride at highway speeds, aided further by Ford’s efforts at reducing noise inside the cabin.
An all-new interior also awaits a new Explorer owner, and it’s obvious from the first touch that the SUV’s inner sanctum is now more a place of luxury than labor. Our model is equipped with Ford’s second-gen DVD nav system that so far has safely delivered us into and out of the interior of Pittsburgh’s skyline. We’ll return to the Explorer’s new interior in our second post, but for now suffice it to say that we’ve felt coddled and well protected while piloting this SUV.
The question still stands as to why the Ford Explorer’s sales have fallen so sharply despite the improvements made in the 2006 model. As you’ll read throughout our review it’s becoming clear that the SUV market is fragmenting, and a new segment filled with CUVs (crossover utility vehicles), is beginning to make a name for itself. These vehicles that are essentially built on car platforms offer smoother rides, improved fuel economy, and in some cases more flexible functionality than their truck-based brethren. Consumers who have succumbed to the negative image with which traditional SUVs have been branded are taking a look at CUVs, which for the moment are being marketed as easier-on-the-conscience alternatives.
Is there a place for old stalwarts like the Ford Explorer in this new market landscape? Despite some of the disadvantages of being related to a pickup truck, there are still advantages not the least of which is towing. The 2006 Explorer can actually tow 160 lbs. more than last year’s model, which means you can now hitch 7,300 lbs. up to it. For comparison, the Nissan Murano can only carry 3,500 lbs. on its back.
There’s still a market for SUVs that can do some dirty work when called upon, so we don’t expect the Explorer to outright leave showrooms anytime soon. The SUV market, however, is in flux, and when the dust settles we’re more likely to this the new crop of CUVs leading in sales.
That being said, we still have a lot to discuss about the new 2006 Ford Explorer and we plan to shed light on what it has to offer in the face of all these up and coming crossovers, which coincidentally include the new Edge that will be joining Ford’s SUV lineup this year. Vehicles like the Edge may be lighter, cheaper and faster than this original SUV vanguard, but our time with the Explorer so far seems to indicate that it's settling into its new role as an executive SUV quite nicely.
One great thing about the way we review vehicles is that we get to read all of your comments and address some of them in the second and third parts of our reviews. Russell left a particularly enlightening comment in our first post on the 2006 Ford Explorer that sums up many of our feelings on the 2006 Explorer: “As the number of different models in the market continues to proliferate, vehicles like the jack of all trades Explorer become more focused; in this case, on the powerful psuedo luxurious tow/haul niche. It'll never sell in the volumes it used to and I think that's in large part by Ford's own choosing.”
We couldn’t have said that better ourselves, and as evidence we’d like to present the Explorer’s new interior. It’s more luxurious, more soft-to-the-touch and features more amenities that any of its forbearers, which suggests to us that Ford has deliberately gone and driven its number one selling SUV upmarket.
Many of you have commented that Ford should’ve embraced the Explorer’s pickup truck underpinnings like the Nissan Xterra has with its rough-around-the-edges image and go anywhere attitude. The fact is that it didn’t and instead has created a vehicle upmarket that consumers could possibly grow into after they’ve owned an Escape or an Edge and require something more capable of accommodating their gear and towing their toys.
The new Explorer comes ready to coddle its owner in an interior much more upscale than any previous version. Look around the new interior and your eyes fall upon wood accents (faux though they may be), seats with suede inserts and, of course, the large screen front and center that displays the DVD nav system and audio controls.
While our tester did not come with the optional third row bench, it does feature a 60/40 split folding rear bench. Leg room in the second row is much better than in ye old Explorer and the driver’s seat features 10 ways of power adjustment. Optional adjustable pedals also aid in finding the most comfortable driving position. Trucker butt was never an issue on our aforementioned two and a half hour roadtrip, as the seats were firm and supportive but far from pew-like.
Overall the interior is inoffensive and will thus be an adequate place for most to spend time, although the dash feels less like it was designed and more like it was assembled. Where Ford attempted to infuse the interior with a bit of style is where we think things went wrong. For instance, the problem with faux wood trim is that its lack of organic authenticity is usually obvious. The grain inside the Explorer has an obvious plastic surface that will never be mistaken for a protective clear coat. While the trim is officially described as “Woodgrain accents”, if it did come from a real tree then extra effort must have been spent to replace the natural look of wood with this plastic veneer.
The other area in which Ford designers decided to try something different was with the vehicle’s door handles. Reaching for a grab handle on the side of the door will get you no where. Rather than being embedded within the door, the handles are directly in front of the controls for the windows and door locks and have a cylindrical shape. Opening the doors requires the same grip as grabbing a metal pipe off the floor, which at first is unintuitive. We got used to it, but struggled for a reason as to why the designers would risk altering such an elemental and often used component.
The answer became clear thanks to an internet search that revealed the Explorer’s door handles were designed to prevent a woman’s manicured nails from chipping when opening the door. I consulted a lady friend of mine about this, and while she did acknowledge that her nails had been the victim of door handle attacks before, she questioned whether the problem couldn’t have been fixed merely by altering the grab handle's shape. It’s clear, however, that Ford has recognized the more luxurious the Explorer becomes, the more women will make up its demographic.
The DVD nav system is an above average unit that features touch screen control, which is fast becoming a must for any nav system worth its weight in maps. Its interface is intuitive enough that cracking open a manual was never necessary, and the audio and nav functions do a good job of sharing the screen real estate without getting in each other’s way.
The stereo system has dibs on the top inch or so of the screen, in which it displays information like the radio station frequency, song name, artist’s name, etc. We’re grateful, however, that there are redundant stereo controls on the steering wheel as operating the unit via the touch screen controls was generally not a rewarding experience. Call us old fashioned, but we like stereos with knobs that can be cranked and buttons that can be pushed. While we appreciated the presence of stereo controls on the wheel, we were bigger fans of the controls found on the steering wheel of the new Ford Fusion, which were both larger and required less contorted finger motions to use.
One place in Ford’s new Explorer where the hand falls quite naturally is on the new gearshift, which was lifted directly from the F-150. The previous gearshift was column-mounted, but relocation was required when the column was redesigned to be safer in a crash. The new location is better anyway and the Explorer benefits from this connection to the tough F-150, regardless of how minor it may seem. It’s like a little pebble in a pile of pillows that reminds you this truck comes from good, hard working stock.
While the new interior in the 2006 Explorer may have some ergonomic issues, our nit picks were generally minor and wouldn’t necessarily carry a lot of weight in a purchasing decision. The design, materials and overall fit and finish of the interior are much better than in previous models, even if we're not prepared to rank them best in class just yet.
Having been on the market so long and sold so many units, the Explorer benefits from having the basics down. In other words, it’s an SUV that excels more in the fundamentals than in the details. In our third and final post we’ll talk about the Explorer’s powertrain and driving dynamics, two fundamental areas that profit greatly from this sport utility vehicle’s 15 years of constant evolution.
Our final day with the 2006 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer 4X4 has come and gone, and we’ve saved the best parts about this redesigned SUV for last. Having driven a myriad of body-on-frame SUVs in our day, we know that there’s only so much engineers can do to hide the fact that these platforms weren’t designed for smooth rides and handling that inspires confidence. While there are a few SUVs out there that do a commendable job at concealing their pickup truck parts, not many do it as well as this new Explorer, nor at the price Ford’s asking.
Take a glance at the Explorer’s spec sheet and you’ll find some pretty fancy stuff has been added this year, like the 4.6L V8 that shares the same variable cam timing and three-valve cylinder heads with the Mustang GT and 5.4L F-150 engine. This motor produces 292 hp, a full 53 more ponies than last year’s two-valve 4.6L engine, while also improving fuel economy by 10 percent. Part of the economy gain can be attributed to Explorer’s new 6-speed automatic transmission, which Ford claims is a first in this segment of midrange, midsize SUVs. Contrary to some of the comments left on the last post, this transmission is not the same one that Ford developed in conjunction with GM, which may end up first in one of Ford’s new CUVs or next year’s Lincoln Zephyr.
The engine is a willing partner, and while we never had the opportunity to hitch up a trailer there was never a moment we were left wanting in the power department. Despite that, our tester returned fuel economy in the 18-mpg range on our road trip last weekend. Sure, it’s not as disciplined as the Escape Hybrid when it comes to consuming gasoline, but it certainly isn’t the most ravenous SUV ever.
The Explorer’s suspension definitely felt tuned more for the highway than city streets, as its firm suspension felt a bit jarring at slower speeds over rough pavement but was solid and stable at speed on the freeway. While both the front and rear suspension have been improved for 2006, we felt the rear in particular contributed the most to settling down this big SUV in the turns. On ramps that circle around like Hot Wheels track put the rear suspension to the test, and for the most part it remained flat and composed.
Ford also improved the Explorer’s brakes for 2006. As before, they feature standard four-wheel ABS with electronic brake distribution and electronic brake assist. Engineers improved the system’s heat dissipation and durability in this year’s model, which is partly responsible for increasing the vehicle’s payload capacity and tow rating. The new system effectively masks the true weight of the Explorer, which is significant, by swiftly scrubbing away the effects of inertia.
At one time or another throughout this vehicle’s legacy it has been lacking in one area or another where other SUVs excelled. If it wasn’t down on ponies to another SUV with a V8 then it didn’t handle enough like a car for critics’ tastes. Though the press complained it was always one step behind, the buying public disagreed with its dollars and made the Explorer a perennial best seller.
Having grown in size, power and price over the years has finally placed the new Explorer at the leading edge of body-on-frame midsize SUVs. Unfortunately its arrival coincides with the segment’s rapid decline in sales. The Explorer name, however, has built up too much cache for Ford to either kill it in advance of the CUV onslaught or radically change its nature to be more raw and capable of such rustic activities as rock crawling.
Let the CUVs come and leave the rock crawling to Jeeps and FJ Cruisers (although we would welcome the revival of the Bronco to that niche segment). What Ford has done is deliberately modified its Everyman’s SUV to become a more discriminating man’s SUV. We only wish the Explorer had spent as much time at the tailor as it did with its personal trainer. Perhaps then this icon of suburban status wouldn’t be wearing last fall’s fashions over its fancy new hardware.
New Car Test Drive
A family favorite with a strong record for safety.
Ford Explorer is a traditional midsize SUV with body-on-frame construction. Available with V6 or V8 power, it competes against the Chevy TrailBlazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, and Nissan Pathfinder.
Explorer was completely redesigned for the 2006 model year and we were pleased with the new steering, the new suspension, and the new brakes, all of which were vastly improved over the previous-generation. The latest Explorer is quieter than previous models, and it rides better. It also leans less in corners and the brakes are more responsive. The rear seats fold flatter, and the interior has been improved throughout. More important, it's a very nice vehicle that's pleasant to live with and it compares well with the competition.
With the V8 engine, the Explorer is rated to tow up to a whopping 7,300 pounds; that's about as much as a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a Hemi. And Explorer is rated to carry up to 1,520 pounds of payload.
Explorer earned the best possible impact protection rating in the government's crash tests: five stars for the driver in a frontal impact, the front-seat passenger in a frontal impact, front-seat occupants in a side impact, and rear-seat occupants in a side impact. (This was in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 2006 model-year New Car Assessment Program.) Ford says the Explorer is designed to meet all known federal frontal- and side-impact crash requirements through 2010.
For 2007, Ford has simplified the model lineup. The Safety Canopy side air-curtain system is now standard on Eddie Bauer and Limited. An auxiliary audio input jack is now standard, and power-retracting running boards and heated windshield wipers are available. And the available rear-seat DVD entertainment center comes with a larger, eight-inch screen.
The most important change for 2007 might be the new interior door handles, of all things. We found the door pulls on the 2006 models awkward, traceable to thick armrests engineered for crash protection. This situation has been improved for 2007.
Though car-based SUVs, or crossovers, such as the Ford Edge are gaining in popularity for their smoother ride, better handling, and easier interior access, the Explorer remains a good choice for families that tow. Explorer's truck-based chassis gives it towing capability, while its clever independent rear suspension smoothes the ride for back-seat passengers.
The 2007 Ford Explorer lineup comprises the XLT 2WD ($25,300), XLT 4WD ($27,595), Eddie Bauer 2WD ($28,300), Eddie Bauer 4WD ($30,595), Limited 2WD ($31,400), and Limited 4WD ($33,659). All are available with the standard 4.0-liter V6 and five-speed automatic transmission or an optional 4.6-liter V8 with a six-speed automatic ($1,200).
Standard equipment on the XLT includes cloth low-back bucket seats with manual driver lumbar adjustment; 60/40-split folding second-row bench seat with back-rest recline; power windows with one-touch-down driver window; remote entry key fobs; air conditioning; AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with auxiliary input jack; cargo management system; center console; two 12-volt power points; load-floor tie-down hooks; two-line message center with outside-temperature readout; privacy glass; one-piece liftgate with flip-open rear window; fold-away electric remote exterior mirrors; black roof side rails; 16-inch, painted aluminum wheels with P235/70R16 all-season tires; fog lamps; AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control; and a tire pressure monitoring system. XLT options include leather seating surfaces with heated front seats ($995), heated windshield ($300), and navigation ($2,505). The Ironman Package ($1,495) for XLT celebrates Ford's sponsorship of the Ironman World Championship with Ironman logos; 18-inch, machined-aluminum wheels; unique 10-way, leather trimmed, heated front seats; and exclusive Orange Frost paint.
Eddie Bauer adds automatic headlights; exterior mirrors with approach lights; fixed running boards; 17-inch, painted aluminum wheels with all-season tires; second-row dome lights; wood-grain interior accents; overhead console; four-line message center; electrochromic rearview mirror; leather upholstery; 10-way-power seat for the driver; illuminated visor vanity mirrors; keyless entry with keypad; and Safety Canopy.
Limited adds heated exterior mirrors; 18-inch, machined-aluminum wheels with all-season tires; unique interior wood-grain accents; dual-zone electronic climate control; Audiophile AM/FM audio with six-disc, in-dash CD, MP3 playback and subwoofer; auxiliary climate control; unique floor console; Reverse Sensing System; heated seats; leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise and audio controls; and a third-row manual-folding seat.
Seating choices include a manually folding third-row seat ($845) on XLT and Bauer, standard on Limited. A Power-folding third row is optional on all models. A four-bucket-seat configuration, with comfortable second-row captain's chairs, is available ($795) on Bauer and Limited. The third-row seat comes standard on the Limited, but can be deleted for credit (-$375), providing a flatter cargo floor.
Other options include a power glass sunroof ($850); rear-seat DVD entertainment ($1,295); power adjustable pedals ($150); rear heat and air conditioning ($675), Sirius Satellite Radio ($195); and power-retractable running boards ($695).
Safety features include the same roll stability control system already used by Volvo and Land Rover. It intervenes with throttle and brakes when the computer senses an impending tip over. Other safety features standard on all Explorers are seat-mounted side-impact air bags, adaptive energy-absorbing steering column, and passenger classifier in the front passenger seat. Safety Canopy air bags, standard on Limited and Bauer, are optional ($560) on XLT.
Up front, Ford Explorer looks like an F-150 pickup with finer, scaled-down features. At the same time, its generous use of chrome, big-and-bold lamps, and square-cornered aero mirrors make this latest-generation Explorer look more like a Lexus SUV than a Ford, and we mean that in the most complimentary way.
Between the elaborate lamps front and back, however, Explorer is a big, empty box with five large doors and a whole bunch of space inside.
Each Explorer trim level presents its own visual personality. XLT faces the world with a four-bar chrome grille, black wheel-lip moldings, and black roof rails. Black running boards are optional.
Bauer features a two-tone front bumper and an accent-color rear bumper; a three-bar chrome grille with side nostrils; accent-color wheel lip moldings; body-color exterior mirrors; silver roof rails with black end caps; and Pueblo Gold running boards.
Limited wears body-color front and rear bumpers; a chrome four-bar grille; chrome exterior mirrors; chrome roof rails with black end caps; body-color running boards; and body-color wheel lip moldings.
Everything inside the Ford Explorer was all-new last year, and continues for '07 with only minor detail changes. There are dark wood accents in most models and darker, richer wood for the Eddie Bauer version. The graphics are accented with metal surrounds both shiny and matte. On the downside, we saw a fair amount of glare reflected off the dash top onto the windshield.
The seats are at once more supportive and more comfortable than in older Explorers, where we found them a bit hard. The colors and trims and combinations are elegant and tasteful, the metallic trims just about right, not overdone.
Second-row seats are available as a 60/40 split bench with recline adjustment, or as two bucket seats and a console. The bucket seats are more comfortable for adults, but the bench seats fold down better for cargo.
The third row, when ordered, sits almost two inches higher than in an '05 or earlier Explorer, so kids can see out better. The third row is always a 50/50 split, but is available with manual or power folding and unfolding.
The cargo floor is completely flat when all the seats are folded, with almost no forward rise (2 degrees as opposed to 10 in older models). With three seats, you get 13.6, then 43.9, then 83.7 cubic feet of space as the seats fold down. The five-seater has slightly more room with the seats folded.
The DVD-based navigation system is very easy to use, with excellent colors and graphics, and a big eight-inch display.
The interior door handles are awkward to use, though this improves with familiarity.
Two engines are available for the Ford Explorer. Both powertrains are smooth and quiet. With the lighter V6, the Explorer is a bit easier to turn and maneuver, but both engines are pleasant and competent. Choose the V8 if you pull trailers.
The 4.0-liter single-overhead-cam V6 features variable valve timing and is rated at 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. It meets federal Tier II, Bin 4 emissions requirements for Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle II (ULEV II) status. With the V6, you get a five-speed automatic overdrive transmission.
The V8 is the latest from Ford's 4.6-liter Modular family, with single overhead camshafts and three valves per cylinder: two intake and one exhaust, for better breathing. It develops 292 horsepower, and 300 pound-feet of torque. The V8 delivers low emissions as well, meeting the Tier II, Bin 5 federal standard, which is compliant with California's Low Emissions Vehicle II (LEV II) standard. With the V8, you get a six-speed automatic with two overdrives, plus full electronic control of upshifting, downshifting and torque converter functions.
The steering has a nice, hefty feel at highway speeds, while still providing plenty of assist for parking. The suspension is relatively supple, giving the Explorer a nice ride on rough streets. Yet the Explorer does not lean excessively in corners, body roll is nicely controlled and there's a feeling of being solidly planted. The current chassis is some 63-percent stiffer than in older models; chassis rigidity is a key element for crisp handling and a smooth ride. Explorer manages to be isolated from the road, but well connected to it, at the same time.
Ford has done an exemplary job of insulating occupants from noise and vibration. The air conditioner is relatively quiet yet moves the air. Conversations are easily heard, the music sounds good, and the mirrors, with their square corners defying intuitive logic, are mercifully quiet, as are the tires.
The brakes work well, with much less pedal pressure and travel than before.
The Ford Explorer has never been better and represents an excellent choice among midsize sport utilities. It gets the basics right while paying attention to the details. We find the Explorer fully competitive in a tightly contested segment, succeeding as both an excellent machine and a high-value purchase. It's handsome, smooth, quiet, comfortable and competent.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford Explorer XLT 2WD ($25,300): XLT 4WD ($27,595): Eddie Bauer 2WD ($28,300): Eddie Bauer 4WD ($30,595): Limited 2WD ($31,400): Limited 4WD ($33,659).
Louisville, Kentucky; St. Louis, Missouri.
Options As Tested
V8 engine ($1,200); third-row seat ($845); rear air conditioning ($675).
Ford Explorer XLT 4WD ($27,595).
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