Lake Placid, New York- The Ford Explorer has been America's best-selling SUV for the past fifteen years, but its market share has shrunk recently, as crossovers take sales from traditional SUVs. Ford hopes to net crossover shoppers with its Freestyle, so the revised '06 Explorer sticks with its past formula and updates its look and its mechanicals.
The new Mustang-sourced 24-valve, 4.6-liter V-8 gains 53 hp and 18 lb-ft of torque versus last year's 16-valve 4.6-liter-a considerable increase, but it's still noisy under hard acceleration. (The base V-6 is essentially unchanged.) Actually, the bigger powertrain news is the arrival of a responsive six-speed automatic, which premieres on the Explorer and later will find its way elsewhere (Mustang GT, please).
More impressive than the powertrain improvements are the tweaks underneath the truck, including a stiffer frame, new body mounts, and monotube dampers. We found the revised chassis very effective at isolating occupants from road noise and imperfections while driving on some particularly awful upstate New York roads surfaced mostly with cobblestone, grass, and mud. Recent Explorers have been among the better SUVs on twisty tarmac, and the suspension upgrades have firmed things up further.
Styling tweaks are limited to a busy and chrome-slathered new grille and Dodge Durango-like taillights. The inside looks much more contemporary, with a new dash, seats, and door panels and an available power-folding third-row seat, first seen on the Lincoln Navigator. A windshield reflection from the uplevel chrome-trimmed gauge surrounds is maddening.
These changes don't vault the Explorer into the lead of the SUV horde but should stave off, at least for a little while, the inevitable day when Ford's pioneering sport-ute is toppled as the top-selling SUV in the land.
SPECSPrice: $27,175 (base), $44,480 (as tested)
Engines: 4.0L SOHC V-6, 210 hp, 254 lb-ft; 4.6L SOHC V-8, 292 hp, 300 lb-ft
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel
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The Explorer interior was redesigned for 2006, with the F-150 serving as the primary source of inspiration. Limited models get redundant radio and climate-control buttons on the steering wheel. All Explorers are better at keeping road and wind noise out of the cabin.
The Explorer and its optional touch-screen navigation system excelled at keeping things under control on some of the least traveled "roads" in the country such as Kushaqua-Mud Pond Road. The DVD-based navigation system, which will find its way into several other Ford products in 2006, is the first original equipment unit sourced from Pioneer and boasts a six-disc CD changer and MP3-playback capability.
A power-folding third row is now available, borrowed from the Lincoln Navigator, though it's still a place best fit for the wee ones. The second and third rows fold completely flat in the '06 Explorer, making it more convenient for hauling large items.
The new taillights remind us of the Dodge Durango and Chevrolet Trailblazer, especially if you're following from more than a few car lengths behind. Not surprisingly, the '06 Explorer will not be shod with Firestone tires.
Could a crossover do this? Even though SUV sales are down, Ford let the new Explorer retain its rugged roots and left the Freestyle to satisfy crossover-hungry appetites.