When OEs were falling over themselves to make four-door pickups, Ford took a different approach. Instead of reworking an existing compact pickup platform (in this case, the Ranger), Ford modified an SUV platform (in this case, the Explorer). The idea worked so well that, from 2000 to 2005, Ford sold about 40,000 Sport Tracs with next to no advertising. Even when current Explorers were running around with independent rear suspensions, the Explorer Sport Trac still had the frame and chassis of the previous-gen Explorer, which meant a live axle and leaf springs. But that's all changed.

Based off the 2006 Explorer, the all-new Sport Trac has a 17-inch-longer wheelbase to close the cab and separate the bed. The four-foot, three-inch bed is made of dent-resistant plastic molded to take advantage of every inch of space. In fact, the Sport Trac bed has three hidden storage compartments. At the rear of the bed, against the bed walls, are two six-pack-size cubbies. Also at the back of the bed is a weatherproof mini-trunk that opens when a latch under the bed lip is released. A hydraulic strut pops the lid open and, as long as your arms can reach into the bed, you'll have access. We like the Sport Trac name molded into the rear of the tub and that the optional center-hinged, dual-access tonneau cover is strong enough to stand--even jump--on.

The Sport Trac will use the same engine choices available to the Explorer: a 4.0-liter SOHC 12-valve V-6 and a 4.6-liter SOHC 24-valve V-8. The big news, however, is the availability of that 292-horsepower (300 pound-feet of torque) V-8 engine--a necessity for more active lifestyles. One of only three trucks in the segment to offer a V-8 (the others being the Dakota and Raider, which have the 4.7-liter V-8), the Sport Trac is the first to offer a six-speed automatic transmission (the V-6 gets the five-speed). While the Sport Trac is clearly biased for comfy, fuel-efficient runs around town and on the highway, we were unnerved by the behavior of the transmission: It likes to hunt in some situations, while it's comfortable bogging the engine in others. At best, it'll take a new owner some time to get used to.

A noteworthy standout change is the rear independent suspension carried over from the current Explorer. Anyone familiar with the previous Sport Trac will notice the improved ride and handling dynamics. There's little body roll now, and if the stability-control software detects anything too wild, it applies brakes and reduces throttle. The longish compact pickup did an impressive job tackling our local mountain twisties--it was stable and locked to the ground, even when empty. The tires and transmission had more trouble keeping up with our energetic cornering than the chassis.