By any yardstick, the Explorer is one of the most successful vehicles Ford has ever built. With millions on the road, the product planners in Dearborn sought to expand the Explorer family by developing a hybrid model that blended basic Explorer architecture with a short bed from a pickup, generating new sales in an untapped lifestyle niche. Introduced in model-year 2000, the Sport Trac is aimed at buyers who'd never consider a normal pickup but need more cargo-carrying capacity than in a conventional SUV. Motor Trend took delivery of a Toreador Red '01 4x2 model and immediately started to roll the odometer.

Though our long-term Sport Trac was well-equipped with standard features, we added the Leather comfort group ($1495), which includes leather seats, a front overhead console, floor console, and a six-way power driver's seat. Another box was checked for the Convenience Group ($750), consisting of speed control, leather tilt wheel, autolock, and remote keyless entry. The $270 AM/FM stereo with in-dash six-disc changer rounded out interior fitments. Two more options filled the window sticker: a 3.73:1 limited-slip rear axle ($355) and the $195 cargo cage, a cleverly hinged tubular bed extender that increases the capacity of the 4-ft-long composite bed to accept items almost 6 ft in length. With a base MSRP of $22,500, plus the price of options and destination and delivery, the total tab was $26,140. Worth it?

Based on the four-door Explorer, our Sport Trac has the strengths and weaknesses of America's best-selling SUV. While Ford classifies it as a sport/utility, the Sport Trac is a truck and suffers from a truckish ride. Executive Editor Matt Stone noted, "I'd expect some ride harshness in a stiffly sprung sports car, but not in a vehicle where the primary focus is people and a little bit of stuff, not max cornering or max tow/cargo capability. It's not awful, but it ain't great."

A number of staffers wanted to see the optional 16-in. wheel/tire package installed, but the standard 15-in. wheels had enough sidewall to absorb pothole impacts. However, the Firestone Wilderness HT mud and snow tires tended to squeal during spirited cornering. Rapid handling transitions weren't the Sport Trac's forte, as evidenced by a slalom speed of only 55.7 mph during our instrumented testing. Senior Road Test Editor Chris Walton remarked, "I had little confidence in the suspension to work with the driver in emergency avoidance maneuvers." This was not a vehicle the staff tended to drive at 10/10ths.

With a 4.0L/210-hp V-6 and a five-speed automatic, finding enough grunt to squirt through holes in traffic and blend onto the freeway was never a problem. In acceleration testing, the Sport Trac needed just 8.9 sec to reach 60 mph. That compares well to the 210-hp Nissan Frontier S/C's time of 10.3 sec. Unfortunately, with the power goes mediocre EPA fuel economy, 16 city/20 highway. In one year Motor Trend piled on 15,820 miles, and our average fuel mileage was 16.6 mpg.

We found plenty to like about the Dark Graphite interior, from the four full-size doors and white-face instruments to the full-size cupholders. For carrying long objects or to aid in ventilation, the power rear window motors down into the body. On the flip side, one staffer pointed out "The shift lever looks like it came straight out of my mom's '78 Fairmont, and it feels like it, too." A turn-signal stalk that canceled only on occasional after a turn generated no small amount of criticism in the logbook. Also noted after 13,000 miles was a worn lower outboard bolster on the driver's seat, abraded from the driver's ingress and egress. A chatter developed from the power-steering system during tight, low-speed turns, and while the dealer's replacement of the serpentine belt helped eliminate most of the problem, it occasionally resurfaced throughout our time with the Sport Trac.

Rear-seat room was generous, and we appreciated climate controls back there, but the lack of a foldable center armrest caused grumbling from the aft occupants.

There was no complaining about the five-speed automatic transmission; it garnered praise for its well-spaced ratios and creamy shifts. We wish the same accolades could've been lavished on the brakes, but pedal feel was disappointing, with the first 10 percent of pedal travel feeling numb and ineffective, then the binders coming on strong. Stopping distances were smack in the middle of the midsize SUV class, 60-0 mph taking 138 ft. Standard ABS helped save the front bumper numerous times in crazed L.A. traffic.Speaking of urban driving, the size of the Sport Trac is a real plus in crowded environments. A pickup travels the majority of its miles with the bed empty, a lot of unused space to haul around for the ride. The smaller size of the Sport Trac's cargo box prevented us from carrying 4x8 sheets of plywood, but for most trips that required a pickup bed, this Ford satisfied our needs.

By its very nature, the Sport Trac is a compromise, but overall, the pluses outweigh the negatives. Like a Swiss Army knife, it tries to be a jack-of-all-trades, but is a master of none. It can transport five people in comfort, as well as all of their luggage. That said, it lacks the Chevy Avalanche's fold-down center Midgate that gives true flexibility in managing passenger and cargo space. However, the Sport Trac's clever flip-able bed extender significantly increases the functionality of the cargo box and helps maintain the vehicle's relatively compact dimensions. Producing the Sport Trac pickup/SUV hybrid concept was a risk for Ford, but the public is warming to it.

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