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What do you really want in a sport-utility vehicle?

Sure, somewhere in the back of your mind you see yourself on some remote dirt road, far from freeways and commuting, close to a stunning sunset reflected in a pristine mountain lake.

But if you’re like most, the real-world gotta-have checklist is different. Lots of interior space, a pleasant ride and enough power to keep up with the herd is more likely to show up here.

The Ford Explorer has always scored well in the first two categories, but the power of its standard 160-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6 was strictly ho-hum compared to the sixes offered in virtually all of its competitors.

Still is, in fact.

Ford’s initial cure for the basic V6 blahs was an optional 210-h.p. V8 that certainly pepped things up but also added something like $1,500 to the bottom line.

But this year there’s a much better in-between choice — a new overhead cam V6 option: same 4.0-liter displacement, 45 more horsepower, 25 additional foot-pounds of torque.

Those numbers make the new V6 competitive with any six-cylinder engine in this class, including the tough old General Motors 4.3-liter V6 in the Chevrolet Blazer, GMC Jimmy and Oldsmobile Bravada. And as you’d expect, the extra power does wonders for the Explorer’s forward progress, which is quite deliberate with the base engine.

No one is ever going to buy this or any other sport-utility vehicle for use as a getaway car or a drag racer — blazing acceleration just isn’t part of the program here.

But by current mid-size sport-utility standards, the overhead cam Explorer qualifies as respectable in the daily stoplight derby, as well as two-lane highway passing exposure.

You can’t quite say that for the base engine.

More power also means more towing and hauling capability. Although a V8-powered Explorer is still the best bet for heavier hauling, the overhead cam V6 version can tow up to 5,800 pounds, and — a bonus — doesn’t make as much noise as the standard pushrod V6 when it’s working hard.

(There are two ways to open and close the valves that let fuel and air into the engine’s cylinders. Engines with overhead camshafts are more precise about when they open and close the valves than older designs with pushrods.)

Along with the extra power, you also get an extra gear in the automatic transmission — a new five-speed self-shifter that provides generally smoother performance.

Quibbling points

The are only a couple of down sides here.

The first is that you can only get an automatic transmission on Explorers equipped with the new V6 and the V8. A five-speed manual transmission is available only with the base engine, and a manual can come in handy when the going gets rough.

There’s also a small penalty in rated fuel economy. At 15 m.p.g. city, 19 highway, the overhead cam V6 is rated one m.p.g. lower than the pushrod version with an automatic.

But that distinction is small enough to be eclipsed by your driving style, and in any case fuel economy doesn’t seem to be a big concern of folks shopping for sport-utilities.

All in all, I’d say the $425 cost of the overhead cam engine in an Explorer XLT (it’s standard in the more expensive Eddie Bauer and Limited models) is definitely worth the price.

Elsewhere, the strengths of the Explorer’s 1995 redesign continue to make this vehicle a perennial best-seller.

Family friendly

Four-door sport-utilities are vehicles for folks who just can’t abide the married-with-children image that goes with minivans, and the Explorer is family friendly in a big way.

The key element is lots of leg, head and shoulder room fore and aft, as well as a good-sized cargo hold behind the rear seats.

In addition, there are plenty of nooks and bins for stowing smaller stuff, and a roof rack for lashing down all your vacation toys.

The Explorer’s dashbo d continues to be one of the most attractive in the business, as well as one of the most functional, with its oversize audio and climate controls.

The bucket seats in my test truck — an XLT with four-wheel drive — are as good as any, with a wide range of adjustability, including an adjustment for height, and lots of glass gives all hands a good view of the world as it passes by.

About the only element that strikes me as out of step is the relatively skinny steering wheel, which doesn’t provide a very satisfying grip. But that’s a very small demerit in an outstanding package.

Dynamically, the Explorer provides a sporty feel and firm ride, augmented by rack-and-pinion power steering that’s more accurate and communicative than most sport-utes.

With antilock disc brakes on all four wheels, braking is very good for a two-ton vehicle, although weight is always an enemy when you’re trying to go from 60 to 0 in the shortest possible distance.

Similarly, high curb weight combined with a tall roofline — attributes that are pretty much universal in sport-utilities — are not your allies in emergency maneuvers.

The Explorer handles quick lane changes and hard cornering well, but you can feel all that mass moving back and forth when you’re cranking the wheel back and forth through a set of slalom cones.

As for those sunsets in faraway places that you get to via some rock-strewn, rutted dirt trail, well, there are better choices than an Explorer.

The Control-Trac four-wheel drive system is easy to operate via its dash mounted switch, and it gets the power down to all the wheels when the going gets slippery.

But the long wheelbase of a four-door Explorer, plus very modest ground clearance (6.7 inches), just don’t cut it in really rough terrain.

If that’s what you anticipate on a regular basis, you’re much better off with a two-door Explorer: almost 10 inches shorter in wheelbase, and, with the Sport package, a little more space between vulnerable underside elements (the differentials) and the hard and stony ground.

But remember, most family off-road excursions are limited to reasonably well-maintained dirt and gravel roads, where the Explorer’s ground clearance is adequate and the long wheelbase delivers a much better ride.

It’s not cheap

Like everything else in life, Explorers are getting more expensive.

The basic XL two-door, with two-wheel drive, starts at $20,610, including a $525 destination and delivery charge, the four-door version at $22,010.

The better-equipped XLT, which accounts for most Explorer sales, starts at $24,745, and the base price for my four-wheel drive test truck was $24,475.

Beyond that, my test Explorer included a $3,545 preferred equipment package with premium AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system, automatic climate control, power everything, keyless remote entry and running boards ($395).

With the destination char ge, it all added up to $31,115, before a $1,415 special package discount got the total back below $30,000. Though not by much.

That’s not what you’d call inexpensive, and it’s not going to get any cheaper for 1998.

Incidentally, if you’ve been doing the old approach-avoidance dance because you’re worried that the ’98 Explorer will make the ’97 look old, you can relax.

Significant changes for ’98 include a slightly larger rear window, a slightly darker hue to the tinted glass, and some upgrades to interior small object storage.

So the face will continue to remain familiar.

And the Explorer will continue to be what it’s been since the beginning — an excellent choice in a family-oriented sport-utility, with high quality and the welcome option of a first-rate V6 engine.

RATING: 4 wheels

VEHICLE TYPE: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, four-door compact sport-utility vehicle

KEY COMPETITORS: Chevrolet Blazer, GMC i my, Honda Passport, Isuzu Rodeo, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner

BASE PRICE (XLT 4-door): $24,745


STANDARD EQUIPMENT (XLT): Four-wheel ABS;, dual air bags;, air-conditioning;, AM/FM radio;, power windows, mirrors and locks; cruise control;, tilt steering;, illuminated vanity mirrors;, rear washer/wiper;, aluminum alloy wheels


(manufacturer’s data)

Engine 205-hp 4.0-liter V6

EPA fuel econ. 15 city/19 hwy.

Curb weight 4166 pounds

Wheelbase 111.5 inches

Length 188.5 inches

Width 70.2 inches

Height 66.8 inches

Assembled Louisville, Ky.

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