Between the framerails, a new 4.6-liter modular V-8 delivers 53 more horsepower (now 292) than the old, underachieving two-valve OHC V-8 engine, while contributing to as much as a 2-mpg improvement in fuel efficiency. Also helping fuel economy is the new six-speed automatic transmission built by Ford under license from Germany's ZF.

The combination of more power and more gears works superlatively, giving the Explorer the seamless surge of acceleration typical of European luxury sedans. The new powertrain and bigger brakes boost towing capacity to 7300 pounds.

The base 210-horsepower, 4.0-liter single-overhead-cam V-6 is carried over, but receives tweaked cams and different spark plugs that help smooth the idle, and a new fuel system that permits the six-cylinder version to achieve the same emissions certification as the much-hyped Escape Hybrid. The V-6, which could use the new transmission's extra gear, continues with a five-speed automatic. Explorer continues to be available in rear- and four-wheel-drive configurations.

On the road, Ford has nailed every target set for the upgrade, with a much quieter cabin, smoother ride, and refined feel. New butyl rubber bushings mount the body to the frame; the company says it replaced the natural rubber bushings with butyl because the new ones are better at absorbing impacts. The front suspension mounts were redesigned to allow the wheels to briefly deflect rearward--the engineers call it recession--when striking an obstacle like a pothole, so that the sharp blow isn't transferred to the frame and ultimately the occupants.

The interior is quieter, thanks to the use of more sound deadening in the headliner and doors, and better carpeting, both of which work to dampen unwanted noise, while redesigned mirrors were tuned to create less noisy turbulence. Ford claims the mirrors are actually quieter than having no mirrors at all, but there still is a touch of wind noise audible from the driver's seat, so it may be that the only path to silence is thicker, luxury-car side glass.