Three people, three bicycles and one Explorer Sport Trac are an ideal recipe for recreation.
The weather was considerably warmer earlier this month when my friends and I piled our bikes into Ford’s part-truck, part-SUV for a Sunday afternoon ride on the gravel roads south of Lawrence, Kan. Ford’s segment-defining Sport Trac was designed for occasions precisely like that, and seen in that context the vehicle makes tremendous sense. The cabin, which is essentially the same as that of a regular Explorer, has all the amenities of an SUV, yet the open cargo box keeps dirty or oversized objects, such as mountain bikes, separate from occupants. Sport Trac feels like an SUV and hauls like a truck, albeit one with a small box.
The composite cargo box, slightly more than 4 feet long, is grafted onto the back of the cabin. Since it is not made from steel, it is impervious to rust, and the molded black lining resists scratches and dents from rugged loads. There are 10 tie-downs for securing cargo, and they are strong enough to move a refrigerator, Ford says.
The optional aluminum tubular cargo cage really extends the Sport Trac’s usefulness. It bolts into the back of the bed and, when folded out onto an open tailgate, it creates a cargo space nearly 6 feet long. With the tailgate closed, it flips into the bed and creates a barrier that corrals small objects from sliding around.
A lockable cargo cover is optional, as is a removable plastic divider that allows the box to be partitioned into two separate areas.
Ford is not alone with such a vehicle. Dodge has the crew cab Dakota, Nissan the four-door Frontier, and Chevrolet will unveil the Avalanche next year. Lincoln’s Blackwood is a luxury model that combines the Navigator interior with a covered bed derived from the F-150 SuperCrew.
Ford touts the Sport Trac as being more than an SUV, which is true. It melds the people-hauling capabilities of an SUV with the cargo carrying of a small pickup truck. The two-wheel drive version starts at $23,050, while four-wheel drive begins at $25,365.
The 2001 Sport Trac, with a wheelbase of 125.9 inches, is built on an Explorer frame that has been lengthened 14.25 inches. The frame has been stifened for a better ride, which is now almost as supple as a passenger car.
The 205-horsepower, 4.0-liter, overhead-cam V6 engine delivers a modest amount of power in a smooth, unobtrusive way. The five-speed automatic transmission is a model of smooth shifting and civility. A manual will also be available. It can haul a payload of 1,500 pounds and tow more than 5,000 pounds.
The cabin is basically the same size as in a standard Explorer, and even though the back seat looks smaller, it has as much head, leg and shoulder room as the regular Explorer. It is well-equipped and nicely styled. The instrument panel has light-faced gauges like those in a sport sedan. The radio, on the other hand, relies on a button, instead o f a knob, for changing stations.
Low-back bucket seats open up the interior and keep rear-seat passengers from feeling claustrophobic. A removable nylon sport bag sits inside the console. Fitted with a strap and side netting, it can carry snacks, CDs, cell phones or even lunch.
The floor is covered with thick rubber so it can be cleaned easily in the aftermath of outdoor use. The rubber also cuts down on the amount of road noise that filters into the cabin. Berber carpet floor mats lend a civilized feel.
Cloth seats are standard, but considering how much easier it is to clean leather, I think the leather option is preferable. Besides, the leather package includes a rear console with separate audio and climate controls, cupholders and two headphone jacks.
The 60/40 rear seat folds to accommodate large items, like luggage, inside the cabin. The power rear window can be lowered for ventilation or access to the cargo box.
A small storage compartment, gen ugh for a camera, is built into the cabin wall behind the back seat. Tether anchors for three child safety seats are also standard.
Other things to note:
Anti-lock brakes are standard.
A battery saver cuts off all interior lights after 40 minutes to keep from running down the battery.
Laminated steel in the instrument panel, thick door seals and sound-deadening material in the door and windshield pillars cut down on noise.
The frame is coated with rust-resistant primer, a first for Ford.
The Sport Trac typifies the way manufacturers are able to respond to customer demand and design a vehicle that fills a specific niche. The idea is so popular that additional variations on the same theme are bound to follow.
Price: The base price of the test vehicle was $25,365. Options included a 4:10 limited-slip rear axle, AM/FM/CD stereo, power moonroof, aluminum wheels, side step bar, leather, power driver seat, cargo cage, cruise control and tilt wheel. The sticker price was $30,630.
Warranty: Three years or 36,000 miles.
Point: The Sport Trac is a perfect companion for outdoor activities because it separates dirty cargo from a passenger compartment that is large enough to hold four people in carlike comfort.
Counterpoint: There is no lockable luggage compartment unless you choose the optional lockable bed cover, which I have not seen yet.
Engine: 4.0-liter V6
Wheelbase: 125.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,323 lbs.
Base price: $25,365
As driven: $30,630
Mpg rating: 15 city, 19 hwy.