2001 Explorer New Car Test Drive
The Sport Trac looks like a box because it is one. It actually may be less of a box than an SUV, but it's more square, twice over: first the five-seat cabin and then the bed, whose walls are nearly 20 inches high. Overall, it's high and bulky looking. Our test model was Harvest Gold, a light metallic shade which might work on the Explorer but didn't compliment the lines of the Sport Trac, and certainly did nothing to make it look rugged, which it is. The problem is not the basic shape, it's the styling; the Nissan Frontier Crew Cab five-passenger compact truck has very similar dimensions but looks way cool.
The Sport Trac frame has been lengthened by 14.5 inches over the Explorer, and its lateral stiffness has been increased by 40 percent, says Ford, by the addition of gussets, a new tubular crossmember, and thicker side rails. Urethane body mounts, replacing rubber, are used to smooth the ride.
Visually, the Sport Trac is not very smooth. It's a rugged, utilitarian look with chunky gray cladding along the sides, and bulges along the body. The standard roof rack consists of just two longitudinal bars, with the crossbars sold as an option, but they are necessary. The lack of crossbars severely limits the things you could otherwise easily strap on. We carried a nine-foot-long duffel bag full of sailing gear, and had to flop it right down on the roof.
The cargo bed is 50 inches long and made of a lightweight composite material, which serves as a bedliner. No less than 10 winged cargo hooks are sturdily mounted on the rails of the bed, six black ones on the outside and four on the inside; there's also a 12-volt power source in the cargo area, a wonderful small idea, useful for power tools and even refrigerators. There is an optional plastic bed divider, but more valuable is the optional bed extender, called a cargo cage, a hinged stainless steel tube frame that flips back to the edge of the dropped tailgate, increasing the bed length to 72 inches. When it's in position inside the bed, it creates a compartment 25 by 45 inches and can securely contain bags of groceries and keep other small cargo from sliding around. It's removable, but it takes too much fiddling to get it out and back in.
There's also an optional lockable hard tonneau cover, which is two-piece, foldable and lightweight.
We noticed two things immediately: it was a long reach to the emergency brake release, and the removable nylon pack under the center armrest was … curious. It enables you to carry your console contents with you-it even has a shoulder strap-but it gives up function that would exist if it were fixed. It was awkward when in place, and as a result we never used the compartment because we didn't want to deal with first raising the armrest, then lifting a limp material top secured by Velcro.
Thankfully, Ford is also trying hard with the big-ticket engineering things, an area where the company excels. A lot of effort went into reducing the noise level in the cabin, successfully.
There are big fixed cupholders forward of the armrest, along with a little slot good for coins and tickets. Forward of that is another tray with two more slots, one of them fairly big, so the inconvenience of the nylon console under the armrest isn't felt so much because you can almost get by without it.
Three other innovations go into the Good Idea department. The rubber flooring under the removable Berber carpet floormats is one of the things that offers enhanced sound insulation. The rear window slides up and down, with power-either slightly for flow-through ventilation or all the way down, which the kids in the back seat will love; plus, you can reach through to grab things out of the bed, such as drinks from a cooler. Last but definitely not least, the seatbelt warning dinger won't give up. The relatively pleasant chiming reminder will cease if you don't obey, but a moment later it will come back again and ring longer this time. Eventually you give in, as you should. Its persistence prevents you from getting away with those unbelted 10-minute drives.
We weren't crazy about the looks of the brown gabardine seats at first, but they kind of grew on us, though they remained dark (they also come in a lighter shade). They were quite comfortable, however, and the pattern and easy-cleaning material is original, at least. And although the digital compass (with outside temperature gauge) over the rearview mirror isn't quite original, it's a highly useful and appreciated tool that more carmakers should fit in their vehicles, in our opinion.
Importantly, the rear legroom is ample at 37.8 inches, a full seven inches more than the Frontier. The back seat also contains three child seat tether anchors, standard.