Ford Explorer XLT 4x4
Let's get right to our conclusion on the Ford Explorer: We all agreed when one tester said, "It feels like a really good four-year-old SUV." This is logical, since this is exactly what it is. To be clear, our conclusion was uttered without any hint of condescension. The fact remains that the Explorer is still really good.
It's easy to understand why one might approach the Explorer with some skepticism. Open the door and you're met by a tall, wide dash and an oppressively high cowl. It screams old-Detroit so strongly that it's hard not to expect the moves of an old Detroit pickup. Then you start driving and you're struck by body control and handling that rank right near the top of our group. The Explorer initially feels big, but it seems to shrink around you as you drive.
It's in the engine bay that the Explorer begins to shows its age. Of the four V-8's in this test, the Explorer's 4.6-liter mill is the smallest, and its output (239 hp and 282 lb-ft of torque) ranks at the bottom. It seems to generate as much induction roar as it does forward progress. It's even outgunned by most of the six-cylinders in this group. The Explorer XLT 4x4 starts at $32,675. Adding options like a power moonroof ($850), Ford's safety canopy air bags ($560), an audiophile in-dash six-CD stereo ($510), and the third-row seat package ($795), and our as-tested price reached $38,215--squarely in the middle ground. Though suspension and powertrain updates are coming for 2006, today's Explorer still displays rock-solid capabilities in a simple, straightforward package.
Nissan Pathfinder LE 4X4
The Pathfinder is the newest model in this test. The fact that our test subject was technically still a prototype was moot since everything felt nicely screwed together. The Pathfinder's clean, geometric design theme was everyone's favorite, looking aggressive without trying too hard. The cabin is tastefully designed, with fake wood trim that looked better than the real stuff in the Buick. Add the Pathfinder's fine outward visibility (marred only by a too-small rear wiper), and you have a very nice driving environment.
The Pathfinder has one of the more stiffly sprung suspensions in our group--showing its tough truck roots--but it has enough compliance dialed in to avoid choppiness. The stout foundation keeps body roll in check and puts it among the best handlers in the segment. There is no V-8 option, but the 4.0-liter unit that generates 270 hp and a fat 291 lb-ft of torque is the most powerful six-cylinder in the group. Just as with the Titan pickup, Nissan has created a package that measures up nicely in specification, performance, and sheer presence.
A 4x4 Pathfinder XE starts at a low $26,650, but the model we tested was a top-of-the-line LE. This gave us heated leather seats, side-impact and supplemental roll-over air bags, a six-CD Bose stereo with subwoofer, DVD entertainment system with wireless headphones, and GPS Navigation, all for $38,910. For a mere $700 more than the Explorer, this well-optioned Pathfinder represents a strong value for such a handsomely fresh take on the seven-seat, mid-size SUV.