LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- In my neck of the New Hampshire woods, a Porsche Twin Turbo or a yellow Dodge Viper parked at the soccer field draws drooling men and tire-kicking kids.
Park a glistening red Ford F-150 pickup in the same spot, however, and you get soccer moms. In much of this sprawling land, the aura of the truck is pervasive; with its bed, it is utilitarian, and with four doors, it is a hauler of families.
Judy Curran could be from my rural little town. She's chief engineer for the new Ford Explorer -- an SUV is classified as a truck -- and while lots of other folks are altering or masking their SUVs as ''crossover" vehicles to dispel the truck image, Curran does not. She's truckin' -- promoting a truck-based SUV, which she did before we went romping over hill and dale in Adirondacks State Park.
Indeed, the first time you see the 2006 Ford Explorer in your mirror, you're going to think there's a Ford F-150 pickup truck on your tail. That's because the grille, headlights, and stance have been changed to look like the world's most popular truck series.
What you won't see is that the Explorer rides atop a frame derived from the F-150. Ford, in redesigning a critical offering in its lineup -- 5.5 million sold so far -- was looking for what Curran called ''tough luxury," a way to bring this SUV ''back to its truck heritage."
Well, they've done it. Done it in a not so surprisingly truck-powerful way, but done it surprisingly with an interior full of simple luxury and a ride that is very stable and whisper-quiet.
Now you can buy an Explorer that has more power, gets better gas mileage, contains more standard safety features, and costs you on average about $1,750 less than last year's model.
You can pick from four models -- XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited -- with either rear- or all-wheel drive, and either a 6- or 8-cylinder engine.
Base prices range from about $27,000 to $33,000, with the V-8 adding about $1,200 and all-wheel drive around $2,225.
Now before we wax too thickly in favor of the new Explorer, keep in mind that I have always thought Ford hung onto big mistakes too long with past Explorers. The rear suspension could have been independent long before it was. Leaf springs and a frame that crept up and over the axle, causing weight flop that contributes to accidents, could have been eliminated before they were. And I did not believe Ford when they told me that the last redesign, which eliminated this problem, was not done with safety in mind.
I still hold Ford partially responsible for the Firestone tire fiasco. Sure, the tires were bad. But so was Ford's too-soft recommendation on tire pressure.
And when they said this Explorer will meet US safety standards into 2010, I doubted it -- a doubt later affirmed when I read their literature saying that it meets all ''known" standards through 2010. Those standards have not been written, and that's why I think that while their introduction of standard side air bags for both front-seat passengers is a good move, their offering of side curtain air bags front and rear as options will not hold. Industry folks will tell you that to meet expected 2010 standards, you will need the side bags as standard equipment.
But back to what I feel is a great mid-size SUV -- and it should be, since Explorer has dominated that market for the past 15 years.
There is power, safety, handling, luxury, and quiet instilled in this car.
Engines include a V-6 with 210 horsepower and a five-speed automatic transmission that must handle 210 horsepower and 254 lb.-ft. of torque.
The bigger news is a three-valve-per-cylinder V-8 with 292 horsepower, 300 lb.-ft. of torque, and an impressive towing capacity of 7,300 pounds.
That engine gets a six-speed automatic with such a long run between gears that, even in the remarkable silence of this car at speed, you do not sense it shifting. In fact, the gaps are so long and gradual that when you want instant speed for passing or climbing a hill, you need to tell the car by throttle to downshift a couple of gears quickly. Safety is ensured by the latest antiroll gear that controls the coveted Volvo XC90, as well as steering column ''give."
You feel as if you're in a luxurious F-150, with tightly bolstered seats and a drop-down control panel leading to a center shift console. Second- and third-row seats fold flat, with a power-folding third row an option.
The Explorer rode superbly flat on smooth roads, so flat that some passengers, in hard cornering, mistook their own head sway for body roll. Off road proved no tough challenge; even in washed-out gravel, low-range four-wheel-drive was probably overkill. As for power, I wanted to hook my water ski boat on its trailer aft and see what this baby could haul. Plenty, I bet.
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