The current version of the Ford Explorer has been America’s best-selling sport/utility vehicle for 14 years, offering a desirable midsize package with a solid structure, responsive road manners, seating for up to seven passengers, an available V-8 engine, and available all-wheel drive. The Explorer range spans six trim levels, ranging from the black-bumpered, V-6-fitted XLS to the posh, featured-laden Limited. This spectrum addresses a wide budget range, demonstrating the versatility of the Explorer, which also serves as the basis for the Lincoln Aviator and Mercury Mountaineer. Though a compelling, competitive vehicle for 2005, the Explorer will receive a significant update for 2006, improving the interior, introducing a stronger V-8 with a six-speed automatic transmission, stiffening the chassis, and trading the short/long-arm rear suspension for a trailing-arm configuration.
The Explorer sits in the current SUV sweet spot: It isn’t as big as full-size trucks, which have been suffering due to recent high gas prices, yet it’s large enough for a commanding on-road presence and to transport up to seven people and significant amount of cargo. Its slab sides, upright grill, and flat surfaces bear more than a passing resemblance to the Expedition, enhancing the Explorer’s truck-tough image. The simple exterior continues to feel modern and refined, choosing understatement over trendy flamboyance. Base models are distinguished by black lower aprons and 16-inch steel wheels, with upper trims riding on 17-inch wheels and either coated in either two-tone paint (Eddie Bauer) or more commonly given a monochromatic treatment.
Design flourishes inside are limited to wood appliqus on certain trim levels, giving the civilized Explorer cabin a serious, purposeful quality. Seats are wide and supportive, leaning to the firm side, especially for a sport/ute. Controls are clearly labeled, well placed, and sized for gloved fingers. The interior that impressed when the Explorer launched is now losing ground to more creative and tightly assembled import cockpits, though the 2006 update promises to again move the Explorer to the packaging forefront.
The Explorer can be ordered in five-, six-, or seven-passenger form. The five-passenger configuration has 46.6 cubic feet of luggage space behind the second row of seats. Fold down that row flat for a voluminous 87.8 cubic feet of space. In seven-passenger form, the Explorer has 44.0 cubic feet of space with the third row folded; 81.4 with both the second and third row folded. Behind the optional third-row seats is a mere 13.7 cubic feet of luggage room. Whichever model you choose, the seats all fold flat for a spacious cargo deck. Eddie Bauer and Limited models can be outfitted with second-row bucket seats in place of a bench.
Even base XLS Explorers come quite well equipped, with power windows and door locks, keyless entry, an AM/FM/CD stereo, and cruise control. The XLT adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel, front bucket seats with lumbar adjustment, six-way power driver seat, overhead console, outside-temperature indicator, compass, and power mirrors, plus it can be ordered with a number of upscale features, such as a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, leather seats, and a power moonroof. Both the XLS Sport and XLT Sport are essentially appearance packages, both inside and out, that make nominal enhances to the main trim levels.Moving upscale, the Eddie Bauer Explorer has leather upholstery, heated front seats with eight-way power for the driver and six-way power for the passenger, steering wheel audio/cruise controls, a 290-watt stereo with in-dash CD changer, and dual-zone automatic climate control. The Limited differs from the Eddie Bauer with varied wood and leather treatments.
Across the trims, major options include second-row bucket seats, rear-seat DVD entertainment system, Reverse Sensing System, rear-seat climate control, power moonroof, universal garage door opener, and power-adjustable pedals.
Front-seat airbags and seatbelt pretensioners are standard, and Ford’s Safety Canopy System, which is a side curtain airbag for first and second-row passengers, is on the options list. Available adjustable pedals allow shorter drivers to sit a safer distance from the airbag in the steering wheel.Four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes are standard, and all models have Ford’s AdvanceTrac stability control with Roll Stability Control, which incorporates a roll sensor that detects imminent rollover and helps stabilize the vehicle by adjusting engine power and braking.
The Explorer was named a “Best Pick” by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in its offset frontal crash tests. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave it five stars for front passenger, four for driver, in the frontal crash test. In side crash testing, both front and rear seats earned five stars. NHTSA gave two stars to the Explorer in the rollover test.
The base Explorer engine is a SOHC 4.0-liter V-6 that makes 210 horsepower and 254 lb-ft of torque, ample verve for traditional commuter duty. Base tow capacity is 3,240 lbs, though a more aggressive 3.73:1 rear gear can raise that limit to 5,380 pounds, at the expense of some fuel economy. The more enthusiastic choice is the 4.6-liter V-8 engine with 239 horsepower and 282 lb-ft of torque. The greater power enables the Explorer to pull up to 7,000 lbs, when properly outfitted with a Class III/IV hitch. Both engines are mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. Base Explorers are driven by their rear wheels, but all-wheel drive is available for tackling inclement weather and mild off-roading. For 2006, the V-6 will get more torque, and a variant of the Mustang GT V-8, producing 292 horses and 300 lb-ft, will be fitted.
The Explorer is very comfortable and very easy to drive, with relatively taut suspension tuning more akin to a sedan than a traditional floaty SUV. The seating position is fashionably high, yet the vehicle feels stable and comfortable with its dominating road presence. Outward visibility is excellent, and Ford thoughtfully provides oversize side mirrors to make towing easier.
On the highway, the Explorer benefits from an independent rear suspension, teamed with a control-arm front end. Ride quality is far better than that of SUVs that use a traditional live-axle rear suspension: The Explorer handles mid-corner bumps in a much more compliant fashion, without turning occupants into life-size bobbleheads. If anything, the Explorer is quite sporty in the way travels a back road, and we like the accurate and direct steering.
Although the V-6 works well enough, the 4,300-pound Explorer is an awful lot of vehicle to haul around with only 210 horsepower –that’s fewer horses than the GMC Envoy, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, or Toyota 4Runner in base configurations. Of the two available engines, the V-8 promises the greater satisfaction and work potential.The all-wheel-drive system is a desirable choice for drivers who face tough winters or travel dirt roads en route to their favorite fishing hole.
Like most American automakers, Ford offers a basic three-year/36,000-mile warranty, with 24-hour roadside assistance. With about 3,500 dealerships around the country, you’ll never be far away from a service center for routine maintenance or if you have trouble on the road. When choosing an Explorer, consult the IntelliChoice Ownership Cost Value ratings, as there’s significant value variance among trim levels.
The Ford Explorer is an accomplished all-arounder that marries ample interior space and good road manners in a versatile package.
For 2005, the Explorer received some minor trim changes and standard stability control. The lack of more significant modifications is due to the fact that the 2006 model will be heavily revised, inside and out, including major chassis and powertrain upgrades.
The V-8 engine is an astute choice if you crave passing or towing power. The Safety Canopy side curtain airbag system is worthy option, and the rear-seat DVD system is essential if you drive with kids in the back.