Ford Explorer Sport Trac, one of the earliest vehicles to combine SUV and pickup-truck qualities, was significantly upgraded for 2007. I’m not a big fan of the earlier Sport Tracs, finding them awkward, ill-handling and not very nice to look at. These complaints have been addressed in the new version. With a much stiffer frame and independent rear suspension, first seen on the Explorer SUV, the new Sport Trac rides smoothly and corners nicely with well-controlled body sway. It’s also really quiet, with scant road noise seeping into the attractive interior. There are now quite a few midsize pickups with four-door crew-cab setups, and nearly all have something in common: The extra cab length equates to a smaller cargo bed. On the Ford, the bed is just 50.inches long. Sport Trac, like some others, mitigates this limitation with a tubular bed extender that flips out onto the tailgate, adding nearly 2 feet to the bed length. Still, the bed extender is an imperfect solution: When stowed, it cuts into the cargo space. Compared with the previous version, the new Sport Trac is quite a bit bigger in every direction, immediately noticeable in the roomier interior. The independent rear suspension, rare in a pickup truck, is a stunning improvement. So Sport Trac has the amenities of an SUV, though without the enclosed wagon back, and the capabilities of a pickup, without the hauling capacity. Not exactly the best of both worlds, but a practical and versatile vehicle just the same.
PERFORMANCE: The truck arrived with a V-8 engine, standard on the top-tier Limited. It provided good power and strong torque for a beefy craft weighing nearly 5,000 pounds. The overhead-cam, multi-valve engine, which has become a staple for Ford vehicles, runs very smoothly and lends Sport Trac an upscale feel. The engine gets excellent grades for low emissions, but gas mileage for this heavy vehicle is modest. The EPA rating is not much better for the 4-liter V-6, standard on lesser versions of Sport Trac. A six-speed automatic comes with the V-8 – the V-6 gets a five-speed – that felt highly competent. Shifts were dependable and nearly imperceptible.
DRIVABILITY: The latest Sport Trac is based on a lengthened version of the 2006 Explorer SUV chassis rather than the platform from the cruder Ranger compact pickup truck, as it was before. It is a major upgrade that boosts ride and handling. The steering is light but responsive, and the four-wheel disc brakes come standard with antilock. Other electronic enhancements on the tester included Control Trac automatic four-wheel drive, with low-range as needed for off-roading; AdvanceTrac roll-stability control to thwart skids and possible rollovers; and Safety Canopy side-impact airbags that deploy not only in a side impact but if an impending rollover is sensed. The Safety Canopy is a $560 option.
STYLING: Sport Trac looks both stylish and rugged, with most of the front design coming from the new Explorer SUV. The cargo box is made of a dent-resistant composite. The tester came with an optional hard, lockable bed cover that essentially created a cavernous trunk. The cover can be folded back for tall cargo.
INTERIOR: The Limited interior is plush and luxurious, with a simple, attractive dashboard. The rear seat has decent legroom.
BOTTOM LINE: A practical compromise for people who want a pickup but need an SUV.
Ford Explorer Sport Trac Limited
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door pickup truck, four-wheel drive. Engine: 4.6-liter V-8, 292 horsepower at 5,750 rpm, 300 pound-feet torque at 3,950. Transmission: Six-speed automatic. Wheelbase: 130.5 inches. Overall length: 210.2 inches. Curb weight: 4,793 inches. Towing capacity: 6,640 pounds. EPA rating: 15 city, 20 highway.
HIGHS: Good drivability, attractive styling, versatility. LOWS: Modest fuel mileage, small cargo box, pricey with options.
Base price: $29,540. Price as tested: $35,175.
Leather seats, $995. Moonroof, $850. Locking bed cover, $595. Electronics upgrade, $570. Side-curtain airbags, $560. Audio upgrade, $510. Sirius satellite radio, $195. Cargo-bed extender, $195. Automatic lights, $195. Class III towing, $150. Adjustable pedals, $125 Shipping, $695.