Driven a Ford lately?

Sure have–lots of them.

Let’s start with the 1996 Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle, the best-selling SUV in the industry, yet the SUV that only a year ago lost to the Chevrolet Blazer for North American Truck of the Year honors as judged by a panel of media writers, this scribe included.

The reason Blazer bumped Explorer is simple–the engine. The writers were much impressed with the fact that Explorer offered two air bags upfront while Blazer offered but one to cushion the driver in a front impact. That made Explorer the favorite.

But then Ford held a ride and drive in New Mexico. The media jumped aboard the newly redesigned Explorer and headed for the hills–actually the mountains–and a climb of 9,000 to 11,000 feet. We forgot just how high it was because after about 6,000 feet, the air was so thin we started laughing uncontrollably, and by the summit we were holding a heated conversation with our thumbs.

Explorer didn’t handle it all that well, either. Sure with four-wheel-drive, it was able to make it through just about any terrain and any incline you fed it, but with only a 4-liter, 160-horsepower, V-6 engine, Explorer was starving for air–and power–as much as we were.

That Explorer offered only that 160-h.p. engine, and Chevy offered a 4.3-liter, V-6 that fell only a little short of 200-h.p. to take truck-of-the-year honors.

Enter 1996 and a 210-h.p., V-8 engine option for Explorer.

OK, the V-8 arrives too late to win any award, but it’s just what Explorer enthusiasts–as well as those who pull campers, tow boats and climb mountains–were demanding.

The 5-liter V-8 is quick and quiet. Much more sinew than the 4-liter. Much more get-up-and-go, though what you will find is get-up-and-whoa whenever it sees a fuel pump.

The V-8 is a compromise. It gives you zip, but at the expense of fuel economy. The 5-liter V-8 is rated at 14 miles per galloncity/18 m.p.g. highway versus a 16-m.p.g. city/21-m.p.g. highway rating for the 4-liter V-6.

Well, not the greatest mileage in the world, you might say, but what’s mileage in the Snow Belt when Ma Nature decides to dump several inches of the white stuff on the pavement. Mileage is secondary to four-wheel-drive traction when the family’s aboard.

But there’s a catch. The V-8 is available only on the two-wheel-drive version of the Explorer, not the 4WD model. What mileage could you expect when Ford decides to offer the V-8 in its 4WD Explorer? You probably can expect at least 2 m.p.g. less in city and highway mileage.

The 1996 Explorer 2WD XLT we tested starts at $23,705. Add $3,425 for a preferred equipment package that includes XLT trim, electric radio with cassette and clock, luggage rack, front overhead console, floor console, fog lamps and carpeted mats; $760 for the V-8; $230 for all-terrain tires; $350 for a trailer towi ng package; and $500 for freight.

Unless you do a lot of towing and hauling and hill climbing and unless your employer is Amoco or Mobil and you get an employee discount at the pump, you may want to settle for the V-6.

The number of pit stops for fuel sold us on the idea that Explorer with 4WD and the V-6 would be our choice. After all, there aren’t too many 11,000-foot mountains in Illinois.

1996 Ford Explorer XLT
Wheelbase: 111.5 inches
Length: 188.5 inches
Engine: 4-liter, 160-h.p., V-6 standard; 5-liter, 210-h.p., V-8 optional
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
EPA mileage: 14 m.p.g. city/18 m.p.g. highway.
Pluses: Dual air bags and anti-lock brakes standard. V-8 now available to provide the power the V-6 comes up short on. Integrated child safety seat a new option.
Minuses: While the V-8 packs a punch, it has an unquenchable thirst for fuel. For those who don’t care about the mileage rating, the V-8 is offered only in the 2WD Explorer.