Ford's Explorer Loses Its Way

Despite a decade on top, good pricing, and a great redesign, Ford's best-selling SUV is seeing sales plummet because it guzzles gas

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Looks, top-notch cabin quality, quiet and smooth ride, power

The Bad: Expensive addiction to fuel, funky door handles

The Bottom Line: The best least-relevant vehicle on the road

Up Front Has the Explorer become extraneous? Sales of Ford's (F) once-reigning midsize SUV have plummeted 33.2% since the beginning of the year, compared with the same period last year. In July, month-to-month sales tanked by more than 50%. In fact, so far this year, Ford has actually sold more of the discontinued and unremittingly uncool Taurus sedans than it has of this brawny ute. Ouch.

The downturn hurts on multiple fronts. Not only was the Explorer one of Ford Motors' most profitable and popular offerings throughout the 1990s but also a lot of the company's identity has been tied up in the model's success. After all, the Explorer has ranked as the top-selling SUV worldwide for the last decade-and-a-half. More than 5.5 million models roam the earth. The Explorer's fall from grace, hence, is as consequential as it gets for the troubled manufacturer's morale and bottom line.

That's all too bad, because the redesigned 2006 Ford Explorer is a really nice SUV. In fact, this qualifies, without a doubt, as the best Explorer yet. But powerful, quiet, comfortable, practical, and good-looking as it is, it has an obvious Achilles' heel: 17 miles per gallon combined. Real-world performance is even worse. In my test of mixed highway and city driving, my seven-seater didn't manage to average above 14.7 miles per gallon. Ouch again.

The high fuel cost especially stings because the Explorer provides a good value for the money otherwise. My four-wheel-drive Explorer stickered at $33,625 before a bounty of classy options. On top of that, Ford provided a $560 safety canopy; $150 trailer tow; $595 18-inch chrome wheels; $3,695 Eddie Bauer luxury package; $650 auxiliary climate control; $255 reverse sensing system; $1,340 powerfold third-row seats; $1,295 rear-seat DVD entertainment system; and $350 combined garage-door opener and adjustable pedals.

That total, $43,160 including a $645 destination and delivery charge, might seem slightly high. But, force the kids to watch the scenery outside, forget the third row, tone down the bling—and you've got quite a truck for under $40,000 before incentives and negotiations.

Speaking of which, one might ask: Why review a 2006 model when new 2007's are bound for dealer lots? Precisely because the largely unchanged 2007's are becoming available. Ford is offering up to $3,000 back and cut-rate financing on the '06 Explorer. Not to mention how desperate some dealers will get given the sales crunch. If your heart is set on buying an Explorer, this is the time to play hardball, and 2006 is your model year.

Behind the Wheel Today, the Explorer's chief liability is what was once its chief virtue: a body-on-frame design that mates the utility and capability of a truck undercarriage with the body of a car. As anyone who has been awake over the past 10 years knows, that design makes for a better 4x4, though one that's heavy and, thus, costly to fill up.

The Explorer's long evolution has produced a remarkably quick and comfortable successor, however. Engineers stiffened the frame considerably, allowing them to pack more vibration-dampening technologies that give the truck a surprisingly smooth ride, if at times a bit floaty. In similar fashion, body roll has been brought into line noticeably.

My test Explorer came with the bigger 4.6-liter V8, partly sourced from the amazingly good Mustang GT (see, 8/25/06, "Detroit Thoroughbred"). Transplanted into the truck, the engine delivers 292 horses that keep up admirably with the weight. Power never feels lacking, though you're unlikely to forget you're in a truck unless you've fallen asleep. But the smooth six-speed automatic gearbox goes a long way toward refining the driving experience.

The cabin stays extremely quiet. Ford says it conducted extensive "internal speech intelligibility" testing when putting together the new interior. I can only assume that means loading up the car with passengers, driving it, and trying to have a decent conversation.

I, for one, can confirm the accommodation of the cabin whether two people are talking or seven. "Intelligibility," meanwhile, is subjective.

The Explorer boasts a list of safety features both impressive and horrifying—impressive for its breath, horrifying for the gruesome rollover recollections it conjures. Chiefly, for $560, an optional safety canopy will deploy in the event of a rollover to swaddle front- and second-row occupants, even if their heads are resting against the windows. Sounds neat. But, do you really want to be in a car that needs it?

The list of class-exclusive safety features is wholly impressive. And, the Explorer finally manages to achieve the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest score of "good" on every one of its tests. That should dispense with any lingering concerns over the rather poor performance of models from the 1997 to 2001 time frame.

Outside, the Explorer looks modern if slightly conservative. I like the stronger grill and masculine headlamps, though it isn't as bold as the new Expedition. A miniature version of the Expedition styling might have blurred distinctions between the two models, but could also have attracted a few more welcome buyers.

The Eddie Bauer edition I tested followed the bling trend, with the front decked out in shiny, attention-attracting metal. For my test vehicle, Ford threw in a stylin' set of chrome 18-inch wheels, unnecessary but pretty. Even with the added flash, the effect is still restrained, especially compared to the newest Lincoln Navigator and General Motors' Cadillac Escalade (GM).

The cabin is sure to be a point of pride for owners. Who says U.S. companies can't build a functional, tight, good-looking interior? Inside, the keyword is definitely macho. The shifter is so big it borders on ridiculous. Imagine an oversize corn dog that tastes like plastic and metal. The dash, meanwhile, is functional and well-made. The navigation system is particularly delightful, crisp, and easy to use as it is.

The only points of contention, interior-wise, are the funky door handles. A techy bank of controls sits above the pull handle: cool to look at but annoying to use. A friend broke not one but two nails mistakenly grabbing at the point where a door-pull ought to reside. It's a minor point of style-over-function and, luckily, just a small aberration in the otherwise excellent interior.

Buy It or Bag It? I'm tempted to compare the Explorer to the popular high school athlete who peaks early and sticks around remembering past glories an embarrassingly long time. But, I'm not sure I'd rather see the venerable model retired either.

Clearly, despite the Explorer's other great virtues, consumers haven't managed to forgive it its poor fuel economy. In its class, the Explorer dominates as it ought to, but the class is seriously troubled as well. I'm dubious, meanwhile, of how much the upcoming and much-lauded Ford Edge crossover can stop the bleeding. However, if it inherits the Explorer's newfound refinement, inside and out, it just might have a fighting chance.

If you must have a traditional, midsize, "real" SUV, this is the one to buy on quality, performance, and looks. Otherwise, all tempting deals aside, look to a fuel-efficient crossover or wagon available on the market today.

To learn more about the Ford Explorer, click here.

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