2006 Ford Explorer
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
It seems as if just about everyone has owned or knows someone who has owned a new or used Ford Explorer. It's been the industry top-selling sport-utility vehicle since its introduction for 15 straight years, with approximately 5.5 million new ones sold.
The midsize Explorer thus has almost iconic status in the SUV market. Ford has carefully improved the Explorer for 2006. It doesn't want to alienate current or past owners of the vehicle, and hopes to attract new ones. This SUV thus continues as a cautious, mainstream vehicle, though not a backward one, with risk-free styling.
The SUV market has grown a lot since the Explorer arrived for 1990, and the market has fragmented into traditional truck-based and smaller car-based "crossover" models, with sales of fuel-thrifty crossovers increasing and traditional SUV sales dipping—partly because of the 2005 gasoline price increases.
The changes make sense, although apparently Ford didn't get much feedback on styling because the new Explorer looks much like its predecessor, which means it's far from being a styling knockout. It's sure easy to lose track of where it's parked in a big lot unless painted something like pink.
Variety of Trim Levels
List prices begin at $26,530 and go to $35,940. Expensive options often are put on Explorers, although even lower-line ones are decent equipped.
Options include an $850 power sunroof, a new $1,295 rear DVD entertainment system and $650 auxiliary climate control. The $120 adjustable pedals come in handy for shorter drivers. And there also are new $450 18-inch chromed-cad wheels and a SIRIUS Satellite Radio.
A $31,650 XLT four-wheel-drive V8 Explorer I tested had options such as the sunroof and rear entertainment system that upped its price to $37,830.
Longer and Wider
A stiffer, stronger frame helps allow crisper steering and handling, along with a better ride. The frame is accompanied by a new front/rear independent suspension. The front suspension has stronger parts, and the rear suspension has been made more robust for increased towing and payload capabilities.
For the first time, the Explorer gets a floor-mounted automatic transmission gear selector, although the selector is too touchy when quickly moved from one gear to another and thus can cause a driver to "overshoot" a gear. The selector also blocks the console cupholders on its right side.
Second- and third-row headrests fold forward so they don't partly block rear vision, but thick roof posts hinder outward visibility.
Front seats have side-impact airbags and provide good lateral support, and second-row bucket seats are comfortable.
More V8 Power
A responsive new 6-speed automatic transmission, which is the first in its market segment, accompanies the V8 for a claimed 10 percent fuel economy improvement. Still, there's no cylinder shut-down feature for better economy during cruising, although General Motors and Chrysler offer that feature for V8s.
A 4.0-liter V6 with 210 horsepower is carried over from 2005. It works with a 5-speed automatic and offers decent acceleration if the Explorer isn't loaded with people and cargo.
Mediocre City Fuel Economy
The Explorer feels plenty solid. The power steering allows quick moves, but is heavy—especially at lower speeds. Handling is good, considering this is a high, fairly heavy SUV, and the ride is firm but compliant. Stopping distances are OK with the upgraded brake system. Anti-lock all-disc brakes are standard, and then there's electronic brake force distribution and electronic brake assist.
Safety Concerns Addressed
Those wanting additional protection can opt for head-protecting side-curtain airbags that cover the first and second seating rows and deploy in side impacts and rollovers. New adaptive safety technologies help tailor frontal-impact protection based on crash severity, occupant size and safety-belt usage.
A $1,995-$2,505 navigation system is newly offered, and a $255 rear-obstacles detection system makes it safer to back up because a driver can't see what's directly behind the Explorer.
Second- and third-row seatbacks fold flat to greatly enlarge the cargo area, but there isn't much cargo space with the third-row seatbacks in an upright position. The tailgate has a handy separate-opening glass area, but the heavy hatch calls for extra muscle to open or close.
As with most mainstream vehicles, the Explorer is quite good in some ways, but not exceptional in any particular way. It's a good bet that it again will be the top-selling SUV in 2006.