By Bruce W. Smith Special to GCN
The Winter Olympics. The Adirondacks. Crystalline lakes. Dense forests. Skiing in the winter. Hiking in the summer. Lake Placid is the perfect New England vacation destination, and of late, the host of the 2005 Ford Ironman USA Lake Placid event where 80 of the world’s top triatheletes competed for the title of Ironman USA.
It takes a special person to be a world-class triathelete. Each competitor must complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run in less than half a day to earn the right to call themself an Ironman. This year’s winners in the men’s and women’s classes did so in less than 10 hours. Grueling.
Fitting that Ford chose to unveil the 2006 Ford Explorer to us Off-Road Adventurer types only days before some of the world’s best athletes subjected themselves to such a grueling test of strength and agility in the very surroundings that make this region of upstate New York so appealing to adventurers.
To win an Ironman contest doesn’t mean you have to lead every step of the way in each of the three events. You just have to come out with the best overall time. Finish first in the end.
The newest iteration of Ford’s Explorer does just that.
It’s not the quickest of the under-$40,000 mid-size SUVs out there when it comes to pure acceleration. The Hemi-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee probably holds that honor. The new Explorer wouldn’t finish first on a twisting road course, either, running a distant second or possibly third behind the BMW X-3 and new Saab 9-7X.
But the newest Explorer, which went on sale late this summer, would still come in first if you pitted it against the 40-plus SUVs competing in the $25,000-$35,000 price range. It’s advantage? A fine overall package with the strength of it’s quite, smooth ride combined with stout utility features and creature comforts giving it the edge at the finish.
We drove several hundred miles in the mountainous country surrounding Lake Placid. The highways were typical of what you’d find in any country setting—paved county roads, some freshly blacktopped and smooth, but the majority old and weather-worn with their cracks and potholes. We also roamed over miles of old graveled and dirt backroads—some leading to isolated cabins by lakes, others nowhere in particular.
It’s exactly those types of everyday driving conditions where the 2006 Ford Explorer shines.
The ride and quietness inside the all-new interior is actually better than what you’ll find in a Jaguar or a Lincoln Town Car (Ford has actually tested the new Explorer against its family of luxury cars and found it is, indeed, the quietest in noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH). Ford also claims their tests also show the new Explorer third row seating area is quieter than some competitor’s first row.
Part of the quietness stems from the 2006 Explorer’s doors, headline, a floor of the passenger compartment being insulated with new sound-deadening materials. Another great help is the roof panel is designed with stamped ridges that greatly reduce it from vibrating.
Engineers also significantly reduced the new 292-hp 4.6L Triton V-8 (same as used in the F-150) exhaust harmonics and reduced the body wind drag by making changes to a number of external items including the side mirror.
Another aspect of the new Explorer that makes it a standout is the seating. The front seats are new in design, with an inch more seat travel, and third-row seats that are now a 50/50 split—with the option of power-fold into a cargo floor that is really flat. (The ’05 model’s rear floor had about a 10-degree angle.)
The second row seating can be either 60/40 split, reclining 60/40 split with access to the third row, or bucket seats with a console in between. In addition, you can now get the interior in a number of coverings including “Preferred Suede” inserts surrounded by leather. This is what Ford calls “tough luxury.” We just call it comfy.
Speaking of the interior, the first thing anyone climbing into the driver’s seat will notice really different is the thick, upward angled arm rests that have the door release lever built into the forward end; they look all the world like those found in the F-150, but are unique to the Explorer. In fact, the entire driver area feels like you climbed into the world’s best-selling pickup.
"The 2006 Explorer interior builds on the design leadership of the Ford F-150 truck," says Chelsia Lau, Explorer chief designer. "We wanted to build on the F-150's theme of 'tough luxury.' For Explorer, we improved the craftsmanship of the interior and gave it a bolder, stronger design. As a result, the 2006 Explorer feels both more sophisticated and more adventurous: It's tough, yet refined at the same time."
MORE POWER, BETTER MPG
Underfoot the Explorer is a little less stunning. Granted, the optional three-valve 4.6L V8 (standard is a 210hp 4.0L V6) delivers 53 more ponies than the 2005 engine and the new six-speed automatic is smoother shifting than the “old” five-speed, the new Explorer still feels, well, heavy under hard acceleration. That’s not to say it’s a dog; it’s just not in-your-face sporty feeling.
The 2006 Explorer's new optional three-valve 4.6-liter SOHC V-8 shares the same variable cam timing and three-valve cylinder heads used on the highly lauded Mustang GT and the 5.4-liter Ford F-150 engine. In the Explorer, the new 4.6-liter delivers 292 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque.
Along with that power comes with a gain in fuel economy, thanks in a large part to the introduction of the first six-speed automatic in the mid-size SUV market. Ford claims the new V-8 will deliver 10-percent better fuel economy over the two-valve version found in the ‘05s.
That means the EPA city/highway numbers for the V-8 will equal or better those of the V-6 around town. The 2WD V-6 is rated at 16/21, while the 4x4 version is 14/20. The V-8 is estimated to get 16/21 in 2WD trim and 15/19 in 4x4 models.
The key to increased highway fuel highway is the transmission’s really wide 6.04:1 gear ratio, enabling the engine to spend more time in its optimum powerband — either at peak power for acceleration, or at peak efficiency for more fuel economy. When the tranny drops into sixth, you think for moment the engine quit because it’s so quiet and the rpm so low.
Although eh new transmission is a superb cruiser, what we found lacking in the pre-production models driven around Lake Placid is the six-speed automatic is exceptionally slow to respond to manual downshifts, such as shifting down when descending a steep section off-road or using the transmission’s lower gears instead of riding the brakes in any driving situation.
The transmission is also seemingly slow to respond to throttle-induced downshifts. So don’t expect an instant downshift and surge of neck-snapping power when you pull out to pass. The Explorer will get moving, but it takes a few moments for the transmission and engine to make up their collective minds to do so.
We found the steering to be a little heavy at slow speeds, too. That’s ironic in a way because Ford says “Steering feel is improved by a new ‘drooping flow’ pump that retains firm, confident steering feel at higher speeds, yet decreases parking-lot speed efforts by up to 15 percent.”
Steering feel is one of those interpretive issues where each person seems to have a difference of opinion. You’ll have to drive one to feel how it responds for yourself.
The brakes makes you feel very comrotable at whatever pace you are traveling. They respond in a very linear fashion—not grabby, not squishy, rather just right to pull the 4,600-pound SUV’s speed down quickly and smoothly.
F-150 CHASSIS STRENGTH
What you’ll agree with us on is overall is the 4x4 Explorer is a very comfortable, formidable four-wheel-drive on or off-road. Ford retained the same twist knob-controlled, electric-shift Control Trac® four-wheel-drive system as used in the previous model, but the frame is new, incorporating the very same tube-through-tube design and frame rail size as found under the F-150.
Explorer’s smart electronic logic four-wheel-drive system and a two-speed transfer case with a locking center differential make it a formidable and easy to drive vehicle when the traction conditions deteriorate.
Control Trac® is an advanced four-wheel-drive system that allows a driver to select between three driving modes:
v The 4x4 AUTO (or A4WD) mode provides full power to the rear axle until the rear wheels begin to slip. Then power is automatically proportioned to the front axle as required for increased traction. This mode is appropriate for any driving condition.
v In the 4x4 HIGH (4H) mode the center differential is effectively locked, providing a constant 50/50 torque split between the front and rear axles. It only is intended for severe winter or off-road conditions, such as deep snow and ice and shallow sand.
v Use 4x4 LOW (4L) mode and it locks the transfer case and engages a torque-multiplying gear set in the transfer case. This mode is only intended for off-road applications that require extra power including deep sand, steep grades and towing a boat trailer out of water.
As for the new frame, Ford uses the same type of frame rails and cross members as the F-150. This increases the vehicle’s rigidity by more than 50-percent and lays the foundation for much better suspension tuning, steering control, better brakes, and overall strength and durability.
"The suspension design and tuning are usually a compromise between ride comfort and body control," says Judy Curran, Explorer chief engineer.
"Tuning the suspension for a plush, comfortable ride over potholes usually results in a floating feeling on the highway and too much body lean in corners. The stiffer frame enabled the engineering team to tune the 2006 Explorer for much better impact dampening while still delivering confident body control during cornering."
For those Off-Road Adventurer’s whose adventures include towing a trailer or boat, the 2006 Explorer's brake system has been redesigned for improved heat dissipation and durability.
These brake, along with the engine and chasis redesigns/improvements helped increase the Explorer's maximum capacities, including an Ironman-like tow rating of 7,300-pounds when a weight-distributing equalizer hitch is used. (Tow capacity is limited to 5,000 pounds towing in “conventional” mode.)
"The new V-8 and six-speed automatic drivetrain is a tremendous advantage for the 2006 Explorer," says Raj Nair, SUV and Body-on-Frame Vehicles executive director. "Not only does it offer more power, more refinement and better fuel economy, but it also offers increased utility. The additional power output helps Explorer deliver improved payload…and towing capacity when properly equipped."
Another area the Explorer excels in is occupant protection. Ford says the new Explorer leads its class with 10 standard advanced safety technologies. Seven of these 10 standard features are new to the mid-size SUV class, including four new “adaptive technologies” specifically designed for Ford's stringent internal safety targets. The new Explorer provides the most active and passive safety features in its class.
"The 2006 Ford Explorer's suite of available safety features is unmatched in its class," says Sue Cischke, vice president, Environmental and Safety Engineering. "It offers active safety technology — including confidence-inspiring handling and braking combined with AdvanceTrac® with class-exclusive Roll Stability Control — to help prevent accidents from occurring.
Cischke goes on to say, “In the case of an accident, the 2006 Explorer offers enhanced side-impact rollover protection and four new adaptive safety technologies that help tailor frontal-impact protection based on crash severity, occupant size and safety-belt usage."
Explorer already achieves one of the best impact-protection ratings among mid-sized SUVs, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 2005 model year New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) data. The new 2006 model is expected to improve on that rating. In fact, Ford safety engineers say the new Explorer meets all known federal frontal- and side-impact crash requirements through 2010.
But the best news of all is the 2006 Explorers will be priced an average of $1,750 lower than the 2005s. That’s right, lower. Ford executives say that finding ways to reduce production costs without sacrificing durability or performance allows them to pass those savings on the Explorer buyers. Chalk up another category win to Ford.
As we said early on, the 2006 Ford Explorer isn’t the best in every classification, but it’ll be the winner in enough of them that when all of the numbers are tallied it gets the trophy. –Bruce W. Smith
2006 Ford Explorer
MSRP: $27,175 - $33,160 (incl dest. delivery)
Engines: 210hp 4.0L SOHC 12-valve V6; 292hp 4.6L SOHC 24-valve V8 (optional)
Transmission: 5spd automatic (V-); 6spd automatic (V-8)
4WD system: Command Trac (2WD; WD Auto; 4WD Hi; 4WD Low)
Suspension: Four-wheel independent w/ coil-over mono-tube shocks
Axle ratio: 3.55:1
Turning circle: 36.8 ft
Brakes: 4-wheel vented disc
Overall length: 193.4”
Fuel Capacity: 22.5 gals.
EPA mpg City/Hwy: V-6 2WD 17/20; 4WD 14/20; V-8 2WD 16/21; 4WD 15/19
Curb weight: 4,440 lbs. (5-passenger 4x2) to 4,777 lbs. (7-passenger 4x4)
Max towing capacity: 7300 lbs. “properly equipped”