Powering the Explorer is Ford's multipoint-injected 4-liter OHV V-6. Capable of delivering 155 horsepower at 4200 rpm and 220 foot-pounds of torque, this is one of the strongest engines in its class. It's torquey off the line, responsive to throttle input, and powerful enough to make passing a relatively quick operation.

Our Eddie Bauer was also equipped with the $870 optional four-speed automatic overdrive transmission, which provided smooth, well-spaced shifts and responsive kickdown when needed.

The Explorer is available in either two- or four-wheel drive. The four-wheel drive version includes a two-speed transfer case and automatic-locking hubs. Shifting into four-wheel drive is as easy as pressing a button and can be done "on the fly." With 6.3 inches of ground clearance, huge 235175ZR15 Firestone Radial ATX tires, and a 2.48:1 low range (also pushbutton activated), the Explorer can pick its way through some fairly imposing terrain when the need arises. Shifting back into two-wheel drive, however, requires you to back up a few feet to disengage the front hubs, a procedure that can be easily overlooked by the inattentive driver and wearing on the hubs.

Underneath, the Explorer sports Ford's Twin I-Beam (2wd) or Twin Traction-Beam (4wd) semi-independent front suspension and a solid-axle leaf-spring rear suspension. This softly sprung setup is plush and smooth on the highway, just what the average family driver is looking for. Unfortunately, anything rougher brings out the Explorer's darker side. Should you venture off-pavement with any speed, be prepared to be bumped around.

The recirculating-ball steering system is another weak point. In an attempt to make around-town driving and parking-lot maneuverability as easy as possible, Ford engineers dialed in too much power assist, which produces a twitchy on-center feel and effectively numbs feedback from the front tires. A small price to pay? Obviously thousands of buyers think so.

Speaking of price, the base Eddie Bauer Explorer rings in at $21,566, which reflects the ever-increasing cost of this class of vehicle, but is in line with similarly equipped models.

The Explorer isn't the perfect sport/utility. But considering its overall versatility, comfortable, ergonomic interior, abundance of room for hauling kids or cargo, strong engine, good towing capabilities, and the option of four-wheel drive, the Explorer has what people are looking for today. And for Ford, that's making the worst of times seem much better.