LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- When Mark C. Kaufman, Ford's SUV marketing manager, told me that the No. 1 complaint from Explorer owners was uncomfortable seats, I immediately thought of my sister Claudia.
She lives in West Virginia and not only travels to visit family in Michigan, but also, like many Explorer owners, loves to take road trips. In fact, when I was in Lake Placid testing the redesigned 2006 Ford Explorer, she was on another adventure in her Explorer, this time going from Charleston up to Bar Harbor, Maine, and on to Prince Edward Island. While she's never complained about her Explorer, I have seen her emerge from the SUV with her hand on her back, needing a good stretch and maybe a heating pad after an eight-hour trip.
After spending six hours here driving the new and improved Explorer, the country's best-selling SUV, I'm happy to tell Claudia I've got good news. Road trips in the redone Explorer are easier on your back and backside due to a significant redesign of the seats after mapping "pressure points" from a wider range of customers.
The new Explorer is also easier on your wallet. Ford says it has reduced the price on the 2006 Explorer by an average of $1,750 from the 2005 model. Base prices on 2006 Explorers range from $27,175 to $33,160, including destination. The new Explorer goes on sale in late summer.
Chalk up 2006 as the year when Ford finessed the up-to-seven-passenger Explorer, tweaking the best-selling SUV in a number of ways, from boosting the horsepower on the optional 4.6-liter V-8 to improving towing capacity and handling, to further endear it to legions of loyal buyers like my sister.
What bugged me was that, despite the fact that Ford executives continually touted the 10 standard advanced safety technologies on the 2006 Explorer during our drive, the SUV still lacks air-bag protection for the third-row seat -- the place where kids are most likely to plop themselves. If I ran the show at Ford, that would have been a higher priority for me than the Explorer's new adaptive energy-absorbing steering column. It is my No. 1 complaint about the 2006 model.
I test-drove a 2006 Explorer Eddie Bauer edition with a base price of $34,270. It was loaded with options, including a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, four-wheel drive, the new 18-inch chrome-clad wheels, power adjustable pedals and a reverse-sensing system.
Bottom line: $43,160, including a $645 destination charge. That's just about where Ford's Land Rover LR3 starts.
One of my favorite things about the new Explorer is the improved ride and handling, which benefits from a stiffer frame, retuned steering and brakes and a new rear suspension design. The result is a comfortable ride that's neither floaty nor harsh. The vehicle is more responsive and feels flatter in corners than the old model. Our drive took us through many winding roads in the upstate New York countryside, and the Explorer continually conveyed a sense of security because of the way it was firmly planted on the pavement or gravel.
For 2006, the Explorer's optional V-8 engine gets a significant boost in power and a new transmission.
The Explorer's SOHC 4.6-liter V-8 now gets three valves per cylinder instead of two, and the result is a big boost in output over last year's engine. The engine delivers 292 horsepower, 53 more than the previous 4.6-liter engine, and 300 pounds-feet of torque.
It is paired with a new, smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, which helps improve fuel economy over last year's five-speed automatic. Ford said it does not yet have EPA fuel-economy numbers on the 2006 V-8, although it expects an improvement of up to 2 miles per gallon over the old, 239-horsepower V-8 engine. The EPA rates the 2005 Explorer 4x4 with the 4.6-liter V-8 at 14 miles per gallon in city driving and 18 mpg on the highway.
The standard engine in the 2006 Explorer is a 4.0-liter V-6 that is carried over from last year. It makes 210 horsepower and 254 pounds-feet of torque, and is mated once again to a five-speed automatic transmission.
Ford says the new Explorer has a 7,300-pound towing capacity, a modest improvement over the previous model, which could tow up to 7,000 pounds.
Long-time Explorer aficionados will be impressed with a slate of new interior refinements, including an optional $1,340 power-folding rear seat with a 50-50 split that lowers completely at the touch of two buttons. There is also a cleverly designed second-row bench seat that "kneels" or drops down an inch or so closer to the floor after you flip it forward so you can fold it flat -- a small, but significant breakthrough in SUV design.
The shift lever has been moved from the steering column to the center console in the 2006 Explorer because of that new adaptive steering column that collapses in stages in a crash.
The shift lever is enormous and comes from the F-150. That single feature totally changes the personality of the interior by lending a less-minivan-ish, more sporty feel. The '06 Explorer's interior door handles are big and cylindrical, accented with a big chunk of chrome. New suede seat inserts on some trim levels are a small touch that adds sophistication. A new "media" button on the steering wheel lets you toggle among satellite radio, DVD player, CD player and the radio. Sirius satellite radio is not available at launch, but Ford says it should be added a few months later.
By finessing the Explorer, I mean improving the tiniest details, such as repositioning the heated-seat switches, which were located between the door and the seat on the 2005 model and have been moved to the instrument panel on the 2006 model, so you don't have to blindly feel around for them anymore. The driver's seat also gets its first power-recline control for the 2006 model year. The cheap touches in the cabin, which have yet to be addressed, are a flimsy sunglasses holder and vanity mirrors that only have lights on one side.
The cabin is Lexus-quiet, due to improved sound-deadening insulation throughout the vehicle, in places like the headliner and carpets. There are fewer squeaks and rattles, too, due to the new frame. I rode in the front and back of the new Explorer with two other people and didn't have trouble hearing the conversation from any seat.
One disappointment may be a cautious, almost inconsequential restyling of the exterior.
I was having so much difficulty picking out the changes between the two models that I begged Glenn Burke, Explorer marketing manager, to put the two vehicles side-by-side in the parking lot behind our hotel after the formal ride program was finished, so he could point out exactly what the differences were.
Fog lamps are now rectangular and the exterior mirrors are bigger, he said, walking around a 2006 model. Explorer gets 18-inch wheels for the first time, with a striking new wheel design that gives the SUV more bling than it's ever had.
Depending on which model you choose, there are three new F-150-inspired grille designs to replace the old egg-crate design, including a new one with "nostrils" or big vertical slits on the redesigned Eddie Bauer edition. The Explorer with the Eddie Bauer face is definitely the way to go if you want to get noticed.
A mild redesign of the liftgate did not include a power feature, something that surprised me, since the liftgate is somewhat heavy. I imagine many women would have appreciated the ability to hit a button on the Explorer's key fob and have the hatch automatically flip open.
To sum up, the new Explorer's changes may not amount to a quantum leap over the old model, but it's a solid effort.
Ford's biggest problem may be keeping the 2006 model under wraps just long enough to unload all the 2005 Explorers.
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