Once in a while, the planets align, clouds part, and a segment leader is born. That happened to Ford when it introduced the '91 Explorer in March 1990. Since then, it's been the best-selling sport/utility--a near perfect marriage of trucklike durability and station wagon-like cargo capacity.

Now in its third generation, the Explorer is all-new with a 4.6-liter modular V-8, independent rear suspension, and available third-row seating. A perfect candidate for a Truck Trend one-year test? You bet!

Our True Blue Clear-coated XLT based at $30,500 and came with the 4.6-liter V-8 mated to the requisite five-speed automatic. On the order sheet, we checked off the leather-seating option ($655), power moonroof ($800), XLT sport package (includes 17-inch wheels shod in BFGoodrich Rugged Trail TA P245/65R17 rubber and step bars at $900), a six-disc in-dash CD changer stereo ($290), Advance Trac stability control ($795), adjustable pedals (at $120), and the reverse-sensing system ($255). Since we'd be hauling the kiddies from time to time, we opted for the third-row seat ($670) and rear climate control ($610)--all of which bumped the out-the-door price to $37,020.

So far, we've put 3467 miles on the clock with only one complaint: The vehicle was delivered with the rear climate control inoperable. Our handy editors tested the circuit and noticed that power was getting to the fan switch, but the blower motor was dead. A quick trip to our local dealer revealed that the harness to the blower resistor hadn't been installed. Plugging a new cable in, Arctic air flowed freely through the vents.

With the XLT's revised front and new independent rear suspension, the ride is a marked improvement over the former generation's, the IRS being something that should have been incorporated years ago. Unlike its earlier iteration, our XLT floats over road irregularities, soaking up road noise without transmitting it to the cabin. We're also impressed with the Ford's runningboards: For once, they're perfectly placed to aid in ingress/egress.

Inside, however, our Explorer suffers from hard-plastic overkill and rough edges. Even though the grain patterns, colors, and textures are well matched, the interior still comes off as second rate. But the seats are wonderfully supportive for long drives, though we wish the electrical adjustments were easier to reach, as they're mounted near the seat base, making them difficult to access at best.

While the old 5.0-liter V-8 delivered plenty of punch, the 4.6-liter SOHC motor is nearly as peppy off the line, but it shines in the mid to upper range where most passing and towing happens. The phasing of the standard-issue five-speed slushbox is well done, keeping the engine in the sweet spot when accelerating hard, yet providing smooth shifts around town. The tranny does suffer from off-acceleration harshness, thumping into the next gear should you suddenly lift your foot from the go pedal.

So far, we've asked our XLT to carry a plethora of home-improvement items, and it's been an invaluable tool when one of our editors had to change his zip code. Several staffers have requested the XLT for upcoming long trips, and we'll cover those in our next update. TT