Ford's Freestyle is a good example of the emerging alternative breed and is evidence of the evolution of SUVs into something else that better meets the new requirements. The Explorer, rather than facing eventual extinction, will likely become a crossover at some point in the future, if it is to maintain its position in Darryl Hazel's (president of the Ford division) market sweet spot. The word is that the Freestyle won't be replaced at the end of its run, reinforcing the likelihood of a unibody, crossover-style Explorer in the future.

Meanwhile, however, Ford will still sell plenty of its traditional, body-on-frame, V-8-powered Explorers, thanks to a raft of thoughtful and well-executed improvements for 2006. While less than an all-new truck, the new Explorer enjoys far more than the facelift typical of midlife refreshes.

Outside, the 2006 wears new sheetmetal forward of the windshield, and all the trim such as the lights and grille is revised. Inside, the interior gets a more luxurious-looking dash, slick door panels, and augmented safety features, especially targeting side-impact protection. Kudos to Ford for installing its Roll Stability Control, an electronic system that reduces the chances of a rollover, as standard equipment.

But the real story of the new Explorer is underneath. In this instance, it's no exaggeration to say that Ford jacked up the body and rolled a new truck underneath. The all-new frame is 63 percent stiffer, thanks to bigger framerails and stronger attachments for the crossmembers. Lighter front suspension arms mount more stiffly to the frame and employ superior monotube shocks in place of the old twin-tube shocks.

Larger brakes improve stopping power and contribute to a higher towing capacity. The new independent rear suspension design features different geometry that better provides the intended ride and handling benefits of the costlier independent suspension than the 2002-2005 version.