In reviewing new cars and trucks, I often first try to put you where you will spend most of your time – in the driver’s seat. Sometimes we pop the hood first to see what we’ve got for power, or open the rear hatch to see where we’ll put kids and gear.
Today, we’re going to start by crawling underneath our test car, the 2002 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer edition. We’re going here because Ford, mindful of Explorer (and many other SUV) handling problems and resulting bad press, has completely redesigned the Explorer. They started where the rubber meets the road, giving it 21/2-inch-wider track and lengthening the wheelbase by two inches. This alone adds to stability.
Then they gave it a flatter frame – fully boxed rather than a C-shaped structure – that is far stiffer and longitudinally resistant than the frames in Explorers past. The frame is flattened because they changed the suspension system and, without a rear end that flops about on a live axle supported by leaf springs, engineers could run that rear axle through the frame, cutting away the big humping rise that had to go up and over the axle. This helps lower the center of gravity and also lets the Explorer frame sit two inches lower, front and rear, and makes its bumpers more compatible with regular car bumpers.
While we’re under here, check out the suspension. Notice there are unequal length control arms at all four corners. Notice that the torsion-bar system, which could not absorb longitudinal stress, is gone. In its place there are control arms, coil-over-springs, and antiroll bar – a system repeated in the rear. This combination makes this a far more stable SUV, able to absorb the forces of its heavy weight in sharp cornering.
By the way, an added feature of losing the hump in the frame at the rear is that the cargo area floor has been lowered by seven inches. Ford uses that space to add a third row of seats, giving the Explorer seven-passenger capacity.
Under the hood, the test model came with a 4.0-liter V-6 that produced 210 horsepower. It was plenty of power when hauling four or five people around, but if I were going to do some regular towing or use the four-wheel-drive system in serious offroad challenges, I’d go with an optional V-8 and its 240 horses. Further, the V-6 got only 17.1 miles per gallon in 10 days of testing, telling me the engine was working hard to haul this rig around.
Let’s get inside. You’ll note that doors are taller even as the step-in height has been lowered. Another good spinoff from that lowered frame.
Inside, it still feels like the old Explorer – cavernous, utilitarian – but a noticeable improvement has been made in the front bucket seats. They feel firmer both beneath the thighs and up the back and their shape seems to hold the body better.
The combination of those seats, adjustable pedals, and a steering wheel that adjusts in and out and up and down make it easy to find a comfortable driving position for just about any driver.
So, how’s it drive?
This SUV has made a huge leap over the Ranger pickup-based Explorers of the past. I like to test SUVs in the ways they are not supposed to be driven because that is the way most of you drive them. That is, going fast, making sudden lane changes, setting up imaginary situations that force me to stomp the brakes.
Where the old Explorer would sway almost violently in the lane-change maneuvers, the new, while still top-heavy (and you still should not drive them this way regularly), remained stable, corner to corner, its whole rectangular box of a body remaining relatively flat. No dives front to rear, no unloading of massive weight corner to corner.
I did braking tests two ways – one set proper, one not. With ABS, in an emergency stop or avoidance situation, you are supposed to first hit the brakes and, as you keep them on, steer around the trouble. Doing this, the Explorer was smooth and sure. Then I did it wrong. Mo ng at 50 miles per hour, I cut the wheel sharply to the left and then stomped the brakes.
In the old Explorer, this would have been big trouble. Weight would have shifted to the right front tire and the car would have been hard to handle. Lots of folks have rolled their SUVs making this stupid move. The new Explorer, while the weight shift to the outside front wheel was apparent, nevertheless absorbed my purposeful mistake. The old torsion-bar suspension up front – coupled with the flying axle and stressed leaf springs – in the old Explorer would have been far less forgiving.
The Explorer is still an SUV and still has truck-like qualities that you do not find in car- or van-based SUVs. And you still should drive it like a truck, not a high-performance sedan.
But with the 2002 Explorer (yes, it’s on sale now, but if you want stability control, wait to buy until fall), Ford has made SUV travel smoother and safer.
The hatch-within-a-hatch rear gate. You’ve got one big door that lifts up. Within that door, a window and frame rises and leaves a very low lift-over height for fetching groceries.
Rigid as the frame is, the body still has a few squeaks you would not find in unibody construction.