"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.