In the Autoblog Garage: 2007 Ford Expedition EL

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Ford's new Expedition EL has to follow in some huge footsteps – or, perhaps more appropriately, tire tracks. The stretched-wheelbase SUV not only has to do battle with GM's Suburban and Yukon XL duo (long the sales leaders in the extended-wheelbase segment), but it also has to live up to the reputation of the Excursion. That monstrous predecessor never sold in large numbers, but it built a loyal following that remains to this day (if you doubt this, just try to find a bargain on a low-mileage example with the Powerstroke diesel).

Since Ford's previous attempt at building a cargo conveyance and people mover on the Super Duty platform didn't appeal to the average mass-market buyer, this go-around utilizes the far more civilized Expedition platform – and its independent front and rear suspension – as a starting point. Will this move create a kinder, gentler mastodon of metal? We put one through the paces for a week to learn more.

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The new Expedition's sheetmetal brings with it an edgier appearance that makes a strong first impression. We dig the brawny new look, especially on the longer-wheelbase model, and our tester's two-tone paint complimented it well. The twenty-inch wheels at each corner are well-proportioned to the EL's huge exterior dimensions, as is the Ford signature three-bar chrome grille (note the ample size of the Blue Oval badge, which gives Chevy's oversized Bowtie a run for its money in the Detroit quest to build the biggest logo). Overall, we think the Expedition is as good-looking as any of the full-size SUVs, and it should age well.

Underneath that sharp new shape is an all-new platform that Ford calls the T1. It's got a lot of current-generation F-150 in its bloodline. Where the Expedition differs most strongly from its pickup truck siblings – and the rest of the competition – is in how it locates its rear wheels. The solid rear axle was dropped in favor of a multilink independent setup at each rear corner for 2003, and that continues forward to the latest iteration. Surprisingly enough, the most significant impact isn't the ride – it's good, but not a significant step above the competition – but a feature it allows that we'll discuss a bit later in this review.

To move all this mass around, the Expedition relies on a three-valve version of the trusty 5.4L SOHC V8, with Ford's new six-speed automatic gear changer channeling that power to the ground via the ControlTrac 4WD system. Options for operation in 2WD, Automatic, and both high-range and low-range modes in 4WD are selected via a dial on the dashboard, and the operation is instantaneous and free of noise. The first two modes will be the only ones that matter to most users, but should the urge strike one to take a jaunt off-road, it's nice to know that the running gear is properly sorted-out for such an adventure (even if the wheel/tire package isn't). The minimum ground clearance of 8.7 inches is workable, although the long wheelbase means that high-centering remains a constant concern.

Step up on the nonessential running boards and climb into the interior and one finds that the Expedition has a bit of a personality disorder. The seats are covered in soft, high-quality perforated leather (ours had an attractive two-tone scheme, and were equipped with both heating and cooling), and the carpet felt like expensive stuff. But then there's the instrument panel, which was apparently an attempt to demonstrate the full array of colors and textures available to Ford Motor Company. Few surfaces share the same color, sheen, or grain, and the result is the sort of parts-bin appearance that we hoped that Detroit had abandoned last decade. This is disappointing, because some of these parts are rather nice, and the bits were all assembled together well. All the interior needs is bit of consistency in implementation.

The integrated navigation and entertainment system worked great, although we'd prefer that it wouldn't lock out certain attention-intensive nav functions (such as address entry) when the vehicle was moving, as it also precludes the passenger from utilizing the unit's full functionality. The system proved easy and intuitive to use, and just as important, the sound quality was excellent for a non-boutique factory system. The steering wheel provides comprehensive control over both the radio and HVAC systems, and our only complaint is that the size of the buttons makes gloved use somewhat difficult.

Moving further towards the rear of the cabin, the Expedition quickly distinguishes itself from potential competitors. With the flat load floor afforded by the low-slung rear suspension (there isn't even the typical transmission/driveshaft "hump" down the center) and a generous amount of usable headroom, this vehicle has the sort of open feel normally experienced only in vans. When it's time to load up cargo instead of people, both rows fold to produce a flat load floor. Simply stated, it's the best seating system available in a body-on-frame SUV.

When it was finally time to hit the road, we twisted the key and were greeted with an exhaust note that sounded as if it were transplanted straight from the Mustang GT. Sure, it's a bit attenuated, but there's no mistaking that Ford mod-motor sound. Better yet, that same attitude comes through strongly at WOT, and the acceleration is strong if not breathtaking. Things are well-behaved during normal cruising, though, and the engine has a refined sound and feel. The transmission behaves itself through all of this, and uses its well-spaced ratios to pop off shifts with a good compromise between quickness and smoothness. On occasion, it did seem like the vehicle was attempting to pull off second-gear starts, and that usually resulted in the necessary application of additional throttle and a corresponding downshift. This seems to subvert the goal of saving fuel, and so we'd suggest that future models eschew this technique. Considering the curb weight of three tons and our mix of driving, we weren't disappointed when we achieved 16.0 MPG over the course of the test.

The driving dynamics are quite good when unloaded, and the Expedition EL in fact makes for a wonderful highway cruiser when carrying people or light cargo. The steering wheel provided good feedback while offering appropriate isolation from pavement irregularities, the stiff structure works with the well-damped suspension to provide a controlled ride, and the disc brakes at all four corners resulted in a firm pedal and linear stopping characteristics. The visibility is about what one would expect when sitting somewhere in the middle of a nineteen-foot long vehicle, so plan on learning how to use the mirrors. Loading it up to the limits of the GVWR with some patio blocks took the bloom off the rose, though; the auto-leveling rear suspension didn't compensate well for the additional poundage, and the big SUV generally acted like it was quite unhappy performing any hard labor.

Our springtime test meant that Mother Nature threw everything in her arsenal at us, but as the temp dropped from 60F down past the freezing point in a period of a few hours, the resultant freezing rain and snow were no match for the automatic 4WD mode and standard AdvanceTrac stability system. We failed to fully evaluate the Rollover Stability Control; we're thankful for that, and you'll just have to take Ford's word that it works.

Ultimately, where does the Expedition EL stack up against the current competition? It really comes down to intended usage. Our experience says that the GM duo is happier hauling heavy loads (and the Excursion remains in a class of its own), but when it comes to moving people, there is absolutely no contest - the Expedition is the clear winner. The issues noted above become minor quibbles when compared to the ease in which passengers of all sizes can take a seat, and we think this feature will allow the Expedition to charm those buyers that need to move around suburban armies.

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