Following similar paths mapped out by the all-new '02 Explorer, the Ford Expedition appears bigger, stronger, faster, and probably safer than the vehicle it replaces. Certainly, the technology is impressive. Engine mods, suspension engineering, body building, frame strengthening, four-wheel-drive upgrades, improved towing capacities, and industry-first interior tricks all add up to one of the most thorough makeovers we've seen to date.

Suspension/axles
A new hydroformed frame is more than 70 percent stiffer than the previous platform. This bonus allows engineers more precision in tuning the frame for better compatibility with specially designed suspension components, crossmembers, and body mounts. Probably the most unique feature to this Expedition is the use of an independent rear suspension, similar in structure to that on the new Explorer, but with a slight difference. To allow the Expedition more rear-wheel travel during uneven road surfaces (potholes, rocks, etc.), Ford engineers designed an oval portal through the frame, rather than the round hole of the Explorer, to provide for more up and down flexibility. The advantages of IRS include better on-road ride and handling, less weight, and greater center-differential ground clearance, but are sometimes thought to be less durable. Ford seems to have compensated for this by offering the Expedition with two of the largest ring-and-pinion sizes in its class for both engine options (8.8 in. with the 4.6L V-8; 9.8 in. with the 5.4L V-8), and providing for an ultra-stiff, oversize, cast-aluminum rear-differential cover to help fight driveline flex and whine. Standard cast aluminum upper and lower control arms hold the wheels, while a choice of coil-over or airbag-suspension systems damp the jounce. The air-springs option offers an automatic lowering (at highway speeds and in Park) and raising setting (when in 4x4 low range) where appropriate.

Engines
Although these two engine sizes were offered with the introduction of the Ford Expedition in '98, both have been refined and improved to limit noise, vibration, and lost horsepower. The 4.6L SOHC V-8 has had the most changes, including an all-new aluminum block, new mounts, extensive use of composites, and a metal-plastic oil pan to further reduce vibration. The 5.4L uses an all-new computer-designed cast-iron block and numerous other upgrades specifically designed to, likewise, limit noise and vibration. Both engines have torque ratings several hundred rpm lower and offer better fuel-economy numbers than the previous V-8s. These powerplants will continue to rely on the 4R70W four-speed automatic transmissions that now benefits from a more powerful computer, able to read and predict work load and compensate where needed.

4WD System
Ford's new Control Trac transfer case (a Borg-Warner 44-16) still allows for all-wheel drive, four-wheel-drive high range, and four-wheel-drive low range, but a new two-wheel-drive mode has been reintroduced. Benefits include reduced driveline wear, improved fuel economy, and it provides the driver one more choice. The 2WD setting is made possible because of a new vacuum-operated axle disconnect between the half-shafts and wheel hubs, allowing free-wheeling when disengaged and front drive when engaged. In four-wheel drive (AWD or 4x4), the new transfer case reads wheel slip much faster than the previous system and is capable of providing faster, more seamless traction to a given tire. In addition, Ford's stability-control program, called AdvanceTrac, is smart enough to help prevent a vehicle from dangerous over- and understeer situations. Further, AdvanceTrac can learn and predict events by using various sensors, combined with recent driving history. We're told it can figure out when we want plenty of wheel speed during dune-running or turning on snow and not cut power to the engine via the engine-management controls. Regardless, we are encouraged that Ford has included a dash-mounted engine-management cutoff switch.

Safety
Always an important issue, but increasingly so lately, Ford has placed a high priority on developing safety technologies that not only protect the occupant inside its vehicles, but also in technologies that could also benefit accident victims in another vehicle. The new Expedition, like the Ford Explorer before it, uses specifically designed frame sections under the front bumper to help provide a better, more carlike bumper height. Inside, a front- and rear-seat head-canopy airbag system protects passengers from both high- and slow-speed accidents and rollovers. Likewise, the front-passenger airbag offers dual-stage deployment, depending on how severe the predicted (in milli-seconds) collision will be. Finally, all Expeditions have tire-monitoring devices, located inside the tire to directly measure pressure, that indicate when pressures are up or down an inappropriate amount.

Interior
As improved as the chassis and suspension appears, the interior has gone through quite a transformation as well. With the first, standard electronically controlled third-row seat, the Expedition offers a huge benefit for people looking for more flexibility and convenience, without the typical sacrifice of cargo area (read Tahoe and Sequoia). The fold-flat 60/40-split third-row seat is made possible because of the rear independent suspension that allows the floor pan to be 9.0 in. lower than with the previous solid- rear-axle design. A full-size spare is still housed under the floor pan, with all the necessary tire-changing tools mounted in a hidden storage compartment under the floor. Likewise the second-row seats are 40/20/40 split with the outside seats able to flip forward and flat for third-row access or extra-cargo carrying. The middle seat also offers an industry-first slide-forward function, where drivers with child seats mounted in the second row can move that seat up 11.0 in. for easier access from front seats. Dash and gauge instrumentation is, again, similar to the smaller Explorer with less of the bulbous, rounded, over-stuffed edges of the previous model in favor of more angular geometric shapes. Instruments are clean and readily distinguishable. Other interior optional equipment includes a DVD player and 7.0.-in. roof-mounted LCD screen, a center-console navigation system, and sonar-based backup sensors.

Towing
Just as the IRS made the fold-flat third-row seat possible, the hydroformed frame and heavy-duty IRS proves quite beneficial for towing and payload strength. Because of the reinforced rearend pieces and the stiffened frame, Ford Expeditions now have a maximum towing capacity of 8900 lb--up more than 500 lb from last year. Likewise, gross vehicle weight and payload are up as well. Interestingly, cargo capacity remains the same at 110.7 cu ft of useable space behind the front-row seats. This is identical to the previous Expedition cargo capacity, but now there's a third-row-seat option. Something once heavy and awkward to install or store is now invisible. Also worth noting, Ford has given the '03 Expedition the largest brakes of any SUV around, including its own Excursion: 13.0-in. vented discs in front and massive 13.5-in. discs in back.

Finals
With many impressive additional parts and pieces, the new Expedition looks hugely improved over the last model, and it seems to perform well (see sidebar). Ford had high hopes for the Explorer when it went through its transformation, and even with the trouble in the past 18 months, it was still the largest-selling SUV sold in the U.S.--by a wide margin. We're guessing Ford is expecting more things from its bigger brother. With the Escape, Explorer, and Expedition running on IRS technology, it's clear it wants to be the "ride & handling" kings on the SUV side of the market. We'll see. There's more to life than pavement and darting to the mall. We'll obviously know more when we get some weight behind it (and in it) and see how it responds. Stay tuned. TT

Smooth ride,
sporty handling,
and full-size utility

Precise handling isn't what we expect in a 5686-lb truck, even if it did get an all-new independent rear suspension. But Ford chassis engineers insist that it's a nice thing to discover on a curvy mountain road or freeway-lane change that's forced unexpectedly. We spent a day driving the all-new Expedition on- and off-road and came away impressed that Ford not only drove handling precision into its from-scratch chassis, but also eliminated much of the shake and shudder typical of full-frame vehicles on wavy road surfaces. Indeed, we're hoping some of this engineered plushness finds its way over into the too-taut '02 Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer. Hydraulic mounts for the 4.6 and 5.4L SOHC V-8s smooth the power pulses and better isolate these engines from the frame and body. Transmission calibration work has also polished the shifts to Town Car quality levels. All these tweaks dial up the premium ambience in Ford's big new sport/utility. Inside, the driver side dash has a cockpit feel with white lettering on all the black-on-black controls. The seat cushions are significantly more comfortable with enough handy lateral support for bending a corner. Even the master cylinder's been fine-tuned for nice precise metering of the brake pedal for smoother stops. The one let-down inside is the plain-Jane face of the instrument cluster, which would definitely be more at home in a stripped-down F-150 work truck, and we'd prefer a hint more steering boost at cruise speeds.--Jack Keebler

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