MALIBU, Calif. — It used to be enough simply to be large and rugged. In those simpler days, the portly Expedition and even bulkier Excursion roamed suburbia like two large adult sons, sparring with the Suburban and its variants, selling by the fistful. And suddenly, big wasn't enough. Automakers figured out how to make the wallowiest SUVs dance. Refinement, quietness, and quality materials pervaded the segment. Have you seen a mid-trim Tahoe lately? Cover the badges and it'd pass for an Escalade interior concept from a few years ago. You can have it all: space for eight, the ability to tow an oil tanker, Wi-Fi, and even a modicum of all-terrain capability. (Not that you'll use it!) You can have it all for a price, at least — those too have increased, along with the refinement. Somewhere along the way, the Expedition was left on the side of the road. It's not clear exactly when it stopped being a class leader, but ditching the V8 in 2015 wasn't enough to move the needle. That changes now. Its platform-mate, the Lincoln Navigator, either dethroned or is a very serious competitor to the Cadillac Escalade, depending on your perspective and prejudices. That it's seriously mentioned in the same breath as that wildly successful luxury SUV is a big, huge leap forward. Rather than reinvent the Expedition (and Navigator) entirely, Ford dug deep and built the big SUV it should have all along. Instead of a few distinct advantages lost in a sea of mediocrity, the entire vehicle is on par with or better than the GMT2K-platform trucks from GM. Beyond the independent rear suspension, which helps with dynamics as well as rear cargo-floor flatness, and the gee-whiz EcoBoost V6 with best-in-class theoretical fuel economy, there's a lightweight aluminum body perched on top of a traditional steel ladder frame. Depending on trim and configuration, it's up to 300 pounds lighter than its predecessor. It's also immense, especially in Max long-wheelbase form. The Expedition looks imposing, but it's also one of the cleanest interpretations of Ford's new truck styling language. In particular, the monolithic headlight-grille bar looks upscale but is a simpler shape than the facelifted 2018 F-150's, which looks like it ran into a couple of chromed towel bars on the way to the ranch. There's not much going on in the profile — the first adjective that comes to mind is Suburbanish, and imitation is flattery — and the rear is indifferently attractive. What's more important is the overall effect. This is something you'd be OK leaving with the valet. The valet might not even stuff it behind the hotel. Inside, things are much more dramatic. It's no new Navigator, sure, the interior of which is like 2017 as imagined in 1967, but it's a sea change compared to the old Expedition's menagerie of hard plastic shapes, textures, and colors — all slightly nasty looking, and everywhere. So too with its design. Where bulkiness had awkwardly stood in for handsome chunkiness, we …
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