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.