DEAR Eddie Bauer: You're daft. I mean, you can't be serious. The Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer? Totally senseless. Well, maybe not totally. But pretty darn close. Supple, soft leather seats -- the color of camel's hair. Plush carpeting. Polished chrome wheels. Two-tone exterior paint -- metallic royal blue on top and camel color, with pearlescent treatment, along the running boards. And you even added delicate pinstriping, which ends with a script version of your name on the Explorer's rear quarter panels. I'm told that you had nothing to do with the electronic gadgets crowded on the dashboard and center console, the latter containing an LED screen that displays more than most folks want to know about the Explorer's functions. But all of that fancy stitching, including your name -- again! -- in the Explorer's seats. What's the point of this dippy stuff in a big-engined, four-wheel-drive sport-ute that's engineered to run in mud and muck? Does it come with a maid or janitor, someone to spiff it up after an off-road jaunt? Get real! Eddie Bauer is supposed to design outdoor wear. But the company has given us a Ford Explorer that seems better suited to a valet-operated, condo garage. Background: The Eddie Bauer Explorer is perfect for people who are more interested in driving to the country club than they are driving in the country, which means it's keeping up with the rest of the sport-utility segment. That segment once primarily served the defense, construction and camping industries. It still caters to those businesses. But the biggest consumers of sport-utes nowadays are ordinary folks, many of whom prize form above function. Thus we're getting all kinds of luxed-out sport-utes, of which the Eddie Bauer Explorer is a good example. Though it runs well off-road, Ford's marketers don't see it being used in that manner, not often, anyway. Most Eddie Bauer Explorer buyers are in their forties, according to Ford's marketers. They're married with children, college educated and upper income. Their idea of adventure is driving their Explorer to an airport, taking a flight to West Virginia and hiring a guide to take them whitewater rafting. They just want the Eddie Bauer stuff to put them in the mood. But beneath that glitter lies a sport-ute of substance. The Eddie Bauer Explorer, for example, comes with one of the best V-8s available -- a 5-liter, electronically fuel-injected job rated 210 horsepower at 4,500 rpm with torque rated 280 horsepower at 3,500 rpm. A four-speed automatic transmission is standard on the Eddie Bauer version, as are power four-wheel disc brakes with antilock backup. Dual front air bags are standard. The Eddie Bauer Explorer's four-wheel-drive system is full-time automatic. Under normal driving conditions, 65 percent of the engine power goes to the rear axle and 35 percent goes to the front axle via a transfer gear box. The tested Explorer seats five people and can pull a tra iler weighing up to 6,500 pounds. Cargo capacity is 81.6 cubic feet with the rear seats down. Complaints: Poor fuel economy in the test model, barely 14 miles per gallon on a 600-mile trip. Also, too many buttons on that center console. Dang thang looks like an airline cockpit. Praise: Excellent build. Very comfortable. Excellent overall performance. Head-turning quotient: Hooahh! Lock it in a garage. This one has "Steal me" written all over it. Ride, acceleration, and handling: Excellent ride. Aces for acceleration and handling. Excellent braking. Mileage: About 14 miles per gallon (21-gallon tank, estimated 284-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), driver only, running with an estimated 480 pounds of cargo. Sound system: Ford JBL Audio System with cassette player. Very good. Price: Base price is $30,215. Dealer invoice on base model is $27,144. Price as tested is $32,555, including $1,815 in options and a $525 destination charge. Please n te that these are late model year 1996 prices, which are subject to increase when the new model year begins Oct. 1. Purse-strings note: Compare with Oldsmobile Bravada, Land Rover Range Rover 4.0 SE, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder LE, Isuzu Trooper SE and Mitsubishi Montero SR.
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