I tested an Explorer Eddie Bauer Edition with the 18" alloy wheel package. Its looks attracted a lot of very positive attention (see below). Even my wife liked it, and she normally hates SUVs. Now draped in bling, it's considerably changed from earlier versions. Yet the familiar Explorer shape is still capable of pleasing the eye.
Since its introduction almost two decades ago, the Explorer has bulked up significantly and like many of us has both won and lost a few battles. But now in its golden years, life is good. The optional big wheels, the roof rails and the strong lower body treatment give this year's Explorer a pronounced we-ski-at-Whistler-these-days air.
With Explorer's considerable exterior dimensions, it looks like it has a huge interior -- but oddly I felt a bit cramped in there. Sometimes you really can't judge a book by its cover.
In the Driver's Seat
"What" I said, "You like this?"
"Love it," she enthused.
"What do you like about it?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know. The shape. The size. It looks really roomy, like it could carry a big family with all their kids and stuff. Just toss it all in and go."
With that I invited her to climb into the driver's seat: "It's OK but not as much elbowroom as I thought there'd be."
And then into the back seat: "Whoa, I can't see over the headrest. I'd get carsick driving around the block in this thing. And my knees are almost up against the front seatback. This is not nearly as big inside I thought it'd be."
The optional 3rd row seats hold two 5'8" adults (and their legs) for short trips or two children for longer trips. What's really neat is they fold flat at the touch of a button.
One word of caution: Avoid the tan color interior unless you plan on driving only at night. The glare from the dash can be very distracting in sunlight.
On the Road
Performance has also improved with the optional 4.6L 292 hp, (300 lb-ft) V-8. The hoary 4.0L V-6 with 210hp (254 lb-ft) is still standard. A modern and very smooth 6-speed automatic is standard with the V-8; the V-6 still comes with a 5-speed auto.
The 4-wheel independent suspension and heavy-duty gas charged shocks make ride quality in this nearly two and a half ton mid-size (!) family hauler ride not at all bad. Don't forget we're talking about a pretty serious truck capable of much more than you'll ever ask of it -- like hauling 7,000 lbs, f'r instance.
What hasn't kept pace with the times, however, is its fuel economy. The EPA numbers of course look good on paper. But if my week long test drive of mostly short hop driving is any indication, you should be prepared to dig deep and often at fill-up time.
Paradoxically, as gasoline prices soar to previously unimagined levels in my part of Canada ($4.56 per US gallon in early August 2006), Ford of Canada reports that Explorer sales are actually up over last year. The real estate boom up here must have addled peoples' brains. I mean, who the heck needs a humungous 14 mpg truck for a few kids and some groceries -- especially with the insane headlines from the Middle East and the melting polar icecaps?
That off my chest (for the moment) let me say that I found the 2006 Explorer to be a much more capable, much more impressive vehicle than the one I drove four years ago. Of course, now it's got all the luxuries (like DVD entertainment system and satellite-based NAVI) that we've come to need in family vehicles. At $33K for the loaded Limited model in the United States, this one will again be irresistible to a lot of folks.