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.

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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.

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