The Ford Explorer has been wildly successful, selling 5.5 million units since its appearance in 1990. This popularity probably exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts for the Explorer when it was launched, but Ford's midsize sport/utility matched the exact right characteristics to market conditions of the time.

The Explorer's combination of rugged looks, family-friendly capacity, and light towing capability struck just the right chord in 1990, and as consumer expectations increased through the decade, so did Explorer's ability to meet them.

Since then, the world has changed, with ever more capable competitors arriving on the scene, which, by late 2004 made the prior Explorer look like nothing special. Worse, the very ground under the Explorer's feet was becoming unstable, with higher gas prices and a cultural shift away from SUVs.

For 2006, Ford has shored up Explorer's weaknesses and exploited its strengths, but only time will tell whether the age of the SUV is truly coming to an end. Sales for the medium-size traditional-SUV segment were down 25 percent in the first half of the year, according to Christine Feuell, SUV group marketing manager for Ford.

Taking a bite out of the hide of Explorer and its cohorts is the car-based crossover-SUV segment, which gives sport/utility drivers most of the capabilities they actually use, with better ride, handling, and fuel economy.

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.

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.

Different stiffening ridges stamped into the roof sheetmetal cut the drumming vibration of the large roof, and, with the other improvements, cut the noise level in the second and third rows. This makes it easier for the driver to talk with people in the back seat without anyone shouting. At least, not until the "He hit me first!" accusations start to fly.

Seat comfort was a top complaint of Explorer owners, so the company worked with supplier Lear to upgrade the chairs. It succeeded admirably, producing seats that should be comfortable over the long haul. In the second row, the seats previously folded forward into a tilted heap, defeating an owner's desire for a flat load floor.

In the seven-passenger version of the 2006 model, the second row adds an extra step to the convoluted folding action, ending in a flat position. Seatback angle also is adjustable, so second-row occupants aren't doomed to perpetually ride in the jumbo-jet-like "fully upright and locked position for landing" vertical angle.

Back in the third row, the seat is split into halves, giving drivers the option of putting cargo and a passenger in the back. Electric power-folding third-row seats are now an available option. Ford realized that most customers would trade the previous truck's abundant third-row headroom for higher seats that didn't leave them with that parent's-night-at-kindergarten feeling, so the new seats are 1.75 inches higher, allowing for better thigh support.

For those who don't need to haul seven people, the Explorer is available as a five-seater (no third row), and as a six-seater, which replaces the second-row bench seat with a pair of buckets and a (sad to say) nonremovable center console.

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.

2006 Ford Explorer
General
Location of final assembly St. Louis, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky
Body style 4-door, 7-pass SUV
EPA size class Midsize SUV
Drivetrain layout Front engine, 2WD, 4WD
Airbags Front, side, head (opt)
Powertrain
Std engine 60° V-6, cast-iron block, alum heads
Bore x stroke, in 3.95x3.32
Displacement, ci/L 245/4.0
Compression ratio 9.7:1
Valve gear SOHC, 2 valves/cyl
Fuel induction Sequential multiport
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 210 @ 5100
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 254 @ 3700
Opt engine 90° V-8, all alum
Bore x stroke, in 3.55x3.54
Displacement, ci/L 281/4.6
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Valve gear SOHC, 3 valves/cyl
Fuel induction Electronic returnless sequential
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 292 @ 5750
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 300 @ 3950
Std transmission 5R55S 5-speed auto (w/V-6)
1st 3.22:1
2nd 2.29:1
3rd 1.54:1
4th 1.00:1
5th 0.71:1
Reverse 3.07:1
Opt transmission ZF 6-speed auto (w/V-8)
1st 4.17:1
2nd 2.34:1
3rd 1.52:1
4th 1.14:1
5th 0.86:1
6th 0.69:1
Reverse 3.40:1
Axle ratio 3.55:1
Final-drive ratio 2.45:1
Low-range ratio 2.48:1
Crawl ratio (1st x axle gears x low range) 36.7:1
Recommended fuel Premium unleaded
Dimensions/Capacities
Wheelbase, in 113.7
Length, in 193.4
Width, in 73.7
Height, in 72.8
Track, f/r, in 60.9/61.8
Headroom, f/m/r, in 39.8/38.7/37.4
Legroom, f/m/r, in 42.4/36.9/34.9
Shoulder room, f/m/r, in 59.0/58.9/53.1
Cargo vol, third row, seat up, cu ft 13.6
Cargo vol, third row, seat down, cu 45.1
Total cargo vol, cu ft 85.8
Ground clearance, in 8.2
Approach/departure angle, deg 28.2/23.8
Base curb weight, lb 4440 (4x2), 4706 (4x4)
Max payload capacity, lb 1200
GVWR, lb 6000
GCWR, lb 13,000
Max towing capacity, lb 7300
Fuel capacity, gal 22.5
Chassis
Suspension, f/r IFS, short and long arm, coilover springs/IRS, short and long arm, coilover springs
Steering type Power rack and pinion
Ratio 18.9:1
Turns, lock to lock 3.6
Turning circle, ft 36.8
Wheels 18x7.5 alum
Tires Michelin 235/65R18
EPA fuel econ, city/hwy 17/22 (V-6); 16/21 (V-8)
Price
Price range $27,175-$34,220

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