Looks Like A Truck, Glides Like A Lincoln

It's not yet 4 a.m., and the sun is beginning to rise in a misty Anchorage sky. The highway opens up before me, and I punch the accelerator of Ford's newest sport-utility creation, the Expedition. This jumbo vehicle, which dwarfs Ford's popular Explorer, feels like a luxury car as it effortlessly surges toward 70 miles per hour. As I reach the crest of a small hill on the Seward Highway, my view of the snowcapped mountains ahead is suddenly marred by a police car aiming its radar gun at me from the median. Paradise lost.

After I learn how quickly the Expedition can decelerate, the police officer walks beside my black behemoth, shining his flashlight along its 17-foot length. Does he say: "Do you know how fast you were driving, sir?" or "Please step out of the car"? No. Instead, his first question is: "Where did you get this car?" Such is the reaction the Expedition garners, whether from police on patrol or curious onlookers in the supermarket lot.

But the Expedition is more than just a head-turner. Although built on an F-150 pickup truck platform--and sharing the pickup's sculpted front styling--it is designed to glide like Ford's biggest luxury liner, the Lincoln Town Car. For those who want the rugged feel of a truck, stick with your Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Suburban. But for the growing ranks of former luxury-car owners looking to make the switch to sport-utes, the Expedition redefines how refined an SUV can be.

Whether climbing Alaskan mountain trails or navigating congested freeways, the Expedition is just as adept at keeping its driver comfortable as it is at overcoming obstacles in its path. Its speed-sensitive steering, while a little soft to the touch, makes this extra-large vehicle maneuver easily in the tight confines of a parking lot. And the Expedition's versatile four-wheel-drive system never failed on rutted trails. For added security, four-wheel disk antilock brakes and dual air bags come standard.

Even though the Expedition is 15 inches longer and has 30% more cargo room than the Explorer, it drives smoother and handles better. Ford priced the Expedition aggressively, starting at $27,910 for the two-wheeldrive XLT, climbing to $30,510 for the four-wheel-drive XLT, and reaching $34,515 for the four-wheel-drive Eddie Bauer version with leather interior and other touches inspired by the outdoor outfitter. That puts the Expedition in the same range as upscale Explorers--and it's why Ford is offering its first discounted leases on the Explorer.

General Motors' large sport-utes might also have to turn to rebates to fend off the Expedition. While the Tahoe, Yukon, and Suburban have all added dual air bags this fall, GM's boxy models now look long in the tooth. The Suburban, which ranges from $25,300 to $42,757, is still the largest SUV on the road, measuring 15 inches longer than the Expedition. But size can be a liability. The Suburban is much harder to maneuver in the parking lot and, unlike the Expedition, it doesn't fit into the average garage. With the optional 5.4-liter, V8 engine, the Expedition can tow up to 8,000 pounds, while the V8-equipped Suburban 1500 Series maxes out at 6,600 pounds.

SURGING SALES. In seating, the Suburban wins the battle of the third row. Ford shoehorned seats into the back of the Expedition so it can offer the same nine-passenger configuration as the Suburban. But the Suburban's back bench is comfortable for adults, while the Expedition's third row, a $245-to-$855 option (depending on the material used), is designed to fit children. After riding in the Expedition's back row up a bumpy mountain trail, I felt as if I needed a kidney transplant.


Despite their differences, the Ford and GM vehicles should find a niche in this expanding market. Ford projects that sales of all large SUVs will grow to 270,000 in 1997 from 72,000 in 1994. Ford expects to sell 140,000 to 200,000 Expeditions a year. The major roadblock to runaway sales could be a surge in gas prices, since the Expedition gets only about 16 miles to the gallon, slightly better than its GM rivals.

The Anchorage police officer was more concerned about speed than gas mileage as I idled beside the highway. But he also seemed mighty impressed by the Expedition. After I explained about the truck and noted that I was running late for a fishing trip, the cop did something I've never experienced before: He let me go without a ticket.

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