Ford’s new Explorer is bigger, smoother and more refined. Ford’s redesigned 2002 Explorer remedies many of the old model’s shortcomings. It is bigger inside, has a fold-down third seat and feels more refined. In styling terms, the new model reflects the heritage of past Explorers, but it is noticeably tidier.

Exterior gaps between body panels are as tight as a luxury sedan, and body-colored fascias soften the truck look. Clean-lens headlights brighten up the front. This new model is less like a truck and more like a car, yet it hasn’t sacrificed any of the truck qualities that make it appealing to folks who tow boats, cram it full of kids or crawl over rutted trails in the countryside. It reminds me of an Expedition that has gone to Weight Watchers and spent hours in the gym.

The wheelbase is 2 inches longer and the track is 2.5 inches wider for more interior room and enhanced vehicle stability. The frame, no longer shared with the Ranger pickup, is stiffer. Overall vehicle size is roughly the same as before.

Safety is a significant issue, and to that end, Ford’s AdvanceTrac stability system will be available later in the year, as will a system that inflates both side curtain airbags in the event of a rollover. AdvanceTrac combines traction control and the application of a single brake to keep the vehicle under control in emergency maneuvers and swerves. To lessen impact damage to smaller cars, the lower edge of the Explorer’s front bumper is the same height as that of a passenger car.

Two engines are now offered: A 4.0-liter, SOHC V-6 or a 4.6-liter, SOHC V-8. Prices start at $24,620 for the XLS, $28,380 for the XLT and $32,690 for the Eddie Bauer and Limited series. The volume model, an XLT with four-wheel drive and an AM//FM//CD stereo starts at $30,475.

The test vehicle, a pre-production two-wheel-drive Eddie Bauer edition with the 210-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6, was very close to production-car levels of fit and finish. The V-6 has been isolated from the vehicle so there is less vibration, and the five-speed automatic transmission is as smooth as Lincoln Town Car. Performance of the V-6 is certainly adequate for most driving. It hits 60 miles per hour in roughly 10 seconds. The V-8, on the other hand, takes only 8.6 seconds. It is also smoother, but not by a lot. Folks who like a silky engine, or need extra guts for towing, should pick the V-8.

An all-new independent rear suspension that is geometrically similar to the Lincoln LS pays dual dividends: ride and handling have been improved. There is less choppiness on rough pavement and it sits flatter in turns. To fit this new suspension into the vehicle, each rear axle passes through a porthole in the frame rail. That enables the cargo floor to be 7 inches lower than before, and the extra space accommodates the folding third-row seat that expands seating to seven. Folding third seats are preferable because they don’t have to be removed when maximum cargo space is needed.

Fixed anchor points for child safety seats are built into both the second and third row of seats.

Inside, the Explorer gets richer textures, fewer seams in the instrument panel and excellent steering feel. The instrument package is much the same but with different graphics. The radio still has too many small buttons for changing stations, but that is offset by the steering-wheel controls on higher-end models. Temperature and cruise control can also be operated from the steering wheel.

Door handles, both inside and out, are large and easy to grip, although the front ones are down below the armrest.

Storage is ample, with various cubbies and cupholers located around the interior. Door map pockets will hold a large water bottle. There is a center console with separate power outlet, large storage compartment and multiple drink holders.

The seats don’t have as much lateral support as the old models. Our Eddie Bauer had heated seats, but the on//of witch was awkwardly placed low on the outside by the other seat controls. Console- or dash-mounted switches would be easier to reach.

Around back, the upper section of the liftgate is unusually deep so it aligns with the top of a grocery cart for easier loading.

Small lights in the bottom of the outside mirrors create a night puddle of light alongside each door at night when the keyless remote is punched.

Redesigning a vehicle as popular as the Explorer is never easy, but Ford has managed to keep the basic ruggedness intact without sacrificing comfort, and that is a balance not easy to strike.

Price
The base price of an Eddie Bauer edition is $32,690. The pre-production test truck did not have an actual price sticker.

Warranty
Three years or 36,000 miles.

To get in touch with Tom Strongman, send e-mail to tstrongman@kc.rr.com.

{Point:} Sleek styling, improved handling and the availability of a fold-down third seat highlight changes to the new Explorer. Safety has been advanced with side-curtain airbags and a vehicle stability system. A rollover protection system will be offered later in the model year.

{Counterpoint:} The front door handles are a bit low and it is hard to reach switches for the seat heaters and rear wiper. Also, running boards are a good way to get clothes dirty when steppingout of the vehicle.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6
Transmission: automatic Two-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 113.7 inches
Curb weight: 4,104 lbs.
Base price: $32,690
As driven: N/A
Mpg rating: 15 city, 20 hwy.