The quality of interior materials is distinctly improved, with nice leather and decent-looking plastic used throughout. One of the only shortcomings is the center stack of radio and HVAC controls, which continues to use ugly black devices with green LEDs that appear to be out of the corporate parts bin circa 1989. The switch to a console-mounted shifter was requested by customers, the company says.

An ergonomic flaw is the location of the pull handles on the front doors. Beautiful new door panels wear armrests with built-in release handles at the front, where they fall immediately to hand. Unfortunately, the pull handle is mounted beneath this assembly, where it's hard to reach. Chief engineer Judy Curran explains that this is the result of the company's emphasis on achieving five stars in the NHTSA's side-impact test, and that an easier-to-reach location would compromise that top score. We appreciate the effort to maximize safety, but other manufacturers have found ways to score well with accessible handles.

Steering is direct and communicative, if unremarkable in this age of stellar steering. A new power-steering pump reduces effort by 15 percent at low speeds, but we were hard-pressed to detect the difference, a failure that'll surely anguish the engineers who toiled countless late nights to perfect this improvement. Sorry.

Ford has made choosing and buying an Explorer easier for 2006 by reducing the number of models from five to four and by cutting prices. This year, the available models are the base XLS, mainstream XLT, Eddie Bauer special edition, and topline Limited.

In each case, the new truck delivers more features and capability than the corresponding outgoing model, and does so at a lower price. The XLS starts at $27,175--a $635 reduction--and the $33,160 base price of the Limited is $2470 lower than its predecessor. The biggest drop is in the Eddie Bauer edition, which, at $30,845, is an astounding $3900 lower than last year's.

This combination of lower prices, better content, and more power, efficiency, and luxury than ever before should help Explorer retain its position at the top of the midsize traditional-SUV food chain. But don't be surprised if it evolves into something more crossover-like in the future.