The first thing you notice about the all-new 2002 Ford Explorer now arriving in showrooms isn’t the redesign with larger dimensions or the new more potent engine teamed with a smoother 5-speed automatic transmission.

Nor is it the fact that the bigger Explorer sports a new third-seat option to hold the rugrats or that it features an optional side-impact air-bag curtain to protect those rats in a collision.

What really sticks out like a neon billboard are those raised white letters on the radials that read: “Goodyear.” Like having St. Christopher riding shotgun.

Maybe now that a new midsize Explorer is taking the place of the smaller compact Explorer it’s a bit unfair to resurrect memories of Firestone tires peeling from the vehicle and the nationwide panic, not to mention recall, that resulted.

But consider that for 2002, Ford gives owners a no-extra-cost choice of tires, Goodyear, Michelin or Firestone (and all 16-inch size, no 15-inchers as offered in 2001), which means it, too, has memories of the problem with Firestone tires.

Do consumers care how Explorer is shod or is Ford–and this scribe–overreacting?

“When Firestone tires were first recalled, we started research studies with Explorer owners and found that 90 percent said they’d buy another Explorer–as long as it didn’t have Firestone tires on it,” said Doug Scott, SUV marketing manager for Ford.

And how have consumers voted?

“We’ve already taken 75,000 orders for 2002 Explorers, and less than 1 percent were with Firestones,” Scott said.

The 2002 Explorer is offered as an XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer/Limited models with a choice of 4×2 or 4×4 mode. The four-door Sport Trac with pickup bed and the two-door Sport remain in the lineup but will be built off the old Explorer platform, not the new bigger one. Will Sport Trac and Sport eventually get the new platform? Scott says, “Stay tuned.”

The new midsize Explorer brings a welcome change in dimensions from the old compact. Wheelbase swells by 2 inches, width by 2.5 inches. And the wheels are moved out to the corners to increase tracking, or road stance, by 2.5 inches as well.

The longer wheelbase and wider tracking provide more stability. The extra width makes for a cozier, and more spacious cabin, with a few exceptions that we’ll note later.

Another change finds a 4.6-liter, 240-horsepower V-8 teamed with a new 5-speed automatic replacing the 5-liter, 215-h.p. V-8 and 4-speed automatic on the old Explorer. Quieter with more off-the-line power. You’ll appreciate the change the first time you approach a steep incline. The 4-liter, 210-h.p. V-6 with 4-speed automatic is standard.

Ford says current owners griped about truck-like ride so the suspension was tweaked to soften it up, though now it’s soft to the point you must expect pronounced bounce on rough roads or over deep potholes.

Handling is better than in the compac t, with less body lean and sway. But while unnecessary sideways movement has been reduced, it hasn’t been eliminated. This is a sport-ute, not a sport coupe.

As for the cabin, what Ford giveth in terms of an extra 2.5 inches in width, the designers partially tooketh away with big armrests with the power window controls where armrest and driver’s knee meet. And why so many driver-seat adjustment levers (three!) and why put the levers along the bottom side of the seat so the thick armrest prevents you from finding, much less using, them?

To compound the gaffe, the heat button is hidden among those seat controls. Want heated seats? Stop, open the door, find the button and push it.

Another gripe is that Ford offers the convenient push-button Control Trac four-wheel-drive system. Push 4×4 “auto” and you travel in rear-wheel-drive mode until slippage is detected and the system switches to 4WD on its own.

But the 4WD controls are in the dash by the passe while the driver is treated to controls for the message center at his or her fingertips. Considering the messages are hardly urgent (average fuel economy on your trip), Ford should flip-flop the buttons so the driver gets the 4WD controls and let the passenger read the messages. Besides, the message window is small, partially hidden by the steering wheel and hard to see in daylight so the driver seldom will use it anyway.

Another gripe is that Explorer was enlarged, but the outside mirrors weren’t. Too little field of vision. Scott says a fix is on the way.

On the positive side, the third seat offers a wealth of room for even two adults–once they get in. When you open either side door, press a handle on the second seat and the back folds flat while the seat flips forward to create an entry/exit aisle.

But the stanchions, or legs, on the second seat that lock into the floor rails to keep it secured when driving, stick out several inches to partially block the aisle when the seat is flipped over. Scott said shorter stanchions are in the works.

With the optional third seat ($670), there’s precious little cargo room behind it–room for a set of golf clubs or a couple small suitcases or a few days groceries. A compartment in the floor behind the seat holds some small items.

Explorer boasts the best running boards ($395) in the industry. With doors closed they stick out very little to catch snow, but with doors opened they offer a huge, non-skid rubber surface to help get in or out of the vehicle.

And kudos to the designers for the rear hatchlid/window. The glass opens separately from the hatch, but rather than just the glass opening, the glass and part of the hatch below open to provide a huge and lower than normal opening to make loading/unloading a breeze. Another best-in-the-industry feature.

The Eddie Bauer Edition we tested also comes with power adjustable brake/gas pedals standard ($120 on the XLT) that move to the driver so he doesn’t have to move the seat closer to the steering column housing the air bag. Great feature.

Other nice touches: Huge decorative door handles; stowage tray with built-in pen holder in the center console and another under the center console armrest; a pair of cupholders and a juice-box holder in the console along with a cellphone power plug; and air/heat and radio controls in the steering column.

Still to come this fall are AdvanceTrac, a traction control system with yaw or lateral sensors to keep you moving in the direction the wheel is pointed; Personal Safety System, driver/passenger air bags whose deployment and force depend on impact speed and whether an occupant is in the passenger seat; and the addition of rollover sensors to the “Safety Canopy” or side-curtain air-bag system now optional ($495) to protect front- and rear-seat occupants in a collision.

Those sensors will keep the side curtain bags inflated f or six seconds in a rollover. “A vehicle can rollover four times in just six seconds,” Scott pointed out.

Explorer base prices are $24,620 for the XLS 4×2, $26,500 for the 4×4, $28,380 for the XLT 4×2, $30,345 for the 4×4, $32,690 for the Eddie Bauer/Limited 4×2, $34,655 for the 4×4 we tested. All prices include $600 freight.

Finally, when it comes to the new midsize Explorer versus the new midsize Chevrolet TrailBlazer (Transportation, Feb. 11), the Chevy’s 4.2-liter, in-line 6 develops 30 more h.p. than Explorer’s 4.6-liter V-8. Ford argues the Chevy is 400 pounds heavier; Chevy argues that despite the weight, its fuel economy is 1 m.p.g. better city and highway than Explorer. The Chevy 6 seemed a little more alert than the Ford V-8 off the line. But the Chevy has a somewhat firmer suspension than the bouncy Explorer. As for styling, love the front end on Explorer, the back end on TrailBlazer. Chevy doesn’t get a third seat for another year, when an eve og r TrailBlazer comes out promising more cargo room behind the third seat than Explorer offers.