2005 Explorer New Car Test Drive
With its wheels pushed out toward the corners, the Ford Explorer looks stable and comfortable. Low frame rails keep its front and rear bumpers at about the same height as those of a Ford Taurus, improving safety for the non-SUV drivers around you.
Explorer's styling is fresh and contemporary. Though ubiquitous, it is a handsome, good-looking vehicle. Front and rear fascia are smoothly integrated, while jeweled headlamps and tail lamps give it a sophisticated look. Various combinations of bright, blacked-out, color-contrasting or color-coodinated trim distinguish the XLS from the XLT from the Bauer from the Limited. Wheel treatments are also different at every level.
Pushing the Unlock button on the key fob illuminates the approach lights mounted on the bottoms of the outside mirrors (except XLS), enhancing security and making it easier to find your way at night. Uplevel models come standard with an illuminated keypad on the door for keyless entry. The keypad doesn't improve the appearance of the Explorer, but it continues to be a popular feature among loyal Ford owners.
The Explorer is a comfortable vehicle, even on long trips. We found the cloth seats in the XLT comfortable, firm, and supportive, with lots of adjustments. The same held true for the leather seats in the Eddie Bauer model.
Adjustable pedals, a tilt steering wheel, and long seat travel help the Explorer fit a wide variety of body types. Big coat hooks accommodate thick hangers and big loads of dry cleaning, something few manufacturers get right. Nicely designed cubbies with rubber mats provide space for a wallet, sunglasses, a pen, cans, and bottles. A relatively large center console keeps odds and ends in check. The interior door handles seemed a bit awkward at first, but that went away with familiarization. Map pockets on the insides of the doors are handy and swell at the end to hold water bottles, but wouldn't accommodate the one-liter size. The front power outlet was positioned well for a cell phone, but like most, was a reach for a radar detector. The trip computer came in handy, calculating the distance to an empty fuel tank. The optional six-disc in-dash CD player sounds good and is easy to operate, with large, clearly marked controls.
The second row of seats is quite comfortable. Sliding your feet under the front seats increases legroom. Many people prefer the second-row bucket seats available on Eddie Bauer and Limited, which are more comfortable but only accommodate two passengers.
Seatbelts use retractors and pre-tensioners designed to reduce injuries in a hard crash. The second-row center seat has an integrated shoulder belt, a feature not found on all SUVs. All occupants should always wear their seat belts as they are the first line of defense in an accident.
Third-row seating is available. In fact, the decision to add third-row seating drove the design and engineering of the current Explorer. As a result, Ford has done an excellent job of making the third row as roomy as possible, while also making it fold quickly into the floor when it isn't needed. After flipping the second-row seat neatly out of the way, you can climb back into the third row, fold the second-row seat back into position and slide your feet underneath, which provides somewhat tolerable legroom. The third row offers as much headroom as the second row, but legroom and hip room are significantly compromised. It isn't comfortable for an adult. There's little shoulder room, and the seat itself is a bit hard on the outboard edge; it pushes you away from the outboard side toward the center. It'll work okay for small children, but if you need to carry six or seven adults on a regular basis, you may want to consider a bigger SUV, such as the Expedition, or a minivan, such as the Freestar.
The best thing we can say about the Explorer's third row is that it's no worse than the way-back accommodations in GM's stretch-wheelbase Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL. Head, hip, and leg room in the Explorer's third row measure 38.9, 45.4, and 34.9 inches, respectively, versus the Envoy XL's 38.5, 45.9, and 31.2. Yet the Explorer rides on a relatively handy 113.7 inch wheelbase, vs. the awkward 129 inches of the extended TrailBlazer and Envoy. It is a tribute to the clever design of Explorer's independent rear suspension that it allows interior space comparable with that of a much longer, live-axle SUV.
There's not much cargo space behind the third row, but it easily folds away. Simply squeeze a lever and lightly push the seat forward. With some practice, it's possible to unlock the rear hatch, open it, and flip the third row out of the way with one hand, important when juggling an armload of groceries. The third-row bench folds neatly into the foot well.
Well, maybe not so neatly. In fact, neither the second- nor the third-row seats fold perfectly flat, so the load surface slopes back toward the rear hatch. A sliding cover bridges the gap between the two folded seats, but you could.