EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

The Ford Explorer is one reason the sport-utility boom exists. At the beginning of the decade it was influential in attracting buyers to these do-anything, go-anywhere vehicles.

Introduced as a 1991 model, Explorer brought a civilized ride and car-like comfort to a category dominated by vehicles that were more like trucks.

Make no mistake, that first Explorer was not nearly as cultivated as the current generation, but it set a theme that others have followed and expanded.

Major changes came in 1995 when a new front suspension and rack and pinion steering endowed it with a more supple ride and better handling. Dual airbags became standard, along with a dashboard that was more aesthetic and useful.

Now, seven years after its debut, refinement continues. Last year a 4.0-liter, single-overhead-camshaft (SOHC) V6 with 215 horsepower was offered for the first time, and it is the best $540 option you could choose. Not only is this engine smooth and powerful, it is linked to a five-speed automatic transmission that spreads the power across more gears for better acceleration.

The 5.0-liter V8 and the original 4.0-liter V6 are the other engine choices, but the SOHC V6 the best choice for all around use.

As the compact sport-utility vehicle (SUV) segment swells with new models, competition for the Explorer gets tougher. The two newest members, Dodge Durango and Mercedes-Benz ML320, fill gaps not filled by the Explorer. The Dodge has three rows of seats and a bigger interior. The Mercedes is roughly the same size, but it is a more luxurious model and priced somewhat higher.

Explorer has evolved effectively and it is still a major force. The biggest change for 1998 Ford is a new liftgate with bigger glass and new tailamps. A hitch mount is now integrated into the rear bumper.

Our test car was an XLT painted a very attractive light metallic green. This chameleon-like paint changed color and tone as conditions changed, and it contributed to a softer, gentler look that was accented by the new liftgate, which is gently curved.

The general level of fit and finish is on par with the best in this class. The has the compound curves of a passenger car and the radio and climate controls are packaged together in a unit in the center of the dash. I would transpose the rear-window wiper switch with the cigarette lighter so it is easier to reach.

Inside, a new console can hold six CDs and it has pull-out cupholders for back-seat passengers. A new radio, with CD and cassette players, has been installed for improved audio performance. This new radio has Radio Broadcast Data System (RBDS) capability, meaning it can seek stations by program type, it can display the station’s call letters and it can be interrupted for traffic alerts. The one drawback to this new radio is that the buttons are smaller and selecting stations is now harder than it was with the old radio. Minor point.

The front seats in o ur vehicle were the optional sport buckets covered in leather, and these are among the best seats anywhere, in any vehicle. Their long bottom cushions provide the kind of substantial under-thigh support that helps fight fatigue for hours behind the wheel. They are firm without being wooden, and have adjustable lumbar.

The back seat is not nearly as pleasant as the front, which is one area where the Explorer is beginning to show its age. Legroom is adequate but not exceptional.

There is a lot of space for luggage or cargo because there is no third seat.

Puddle lamps built into the bottom of the outside mirrors click on when you punch the keyless remote entry, lighting up the sides of the vehicle and the ground in front of the doors. This is a very useful gadget that should be standard on all cars.

While some doom sayers predict that the sport-utility market is beginning to top out, the usefulness and functionality of the Explorer highlights why it is the bes selling vehicle in its class.

Price

The base price of our XLT, 4X4 was $26,620. Options included the SOHC V6, five-speed automatic transmission, sport bucket seats, leather trim, power moonroof, overhead console, cast aluminum wheels, trailer towing package, 3.73 rear axle and premium stereo.

The sticker price was $32,380.

Warranty

The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star’s week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The SOHC V6 and five-speed automatic transmission is an ideal combination of smoothness and power. Front seats are exceptional, the dash well-designed and puddle lamps in the outside mirrors are a surprising delight.

Counterpoint: While the new RBDS radio adds functionality, its buttons have gotten smaller.

The back seat is not as comfortable as the front.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 4.0-liter, V6

TRANSMISSION: Automatic

WHEELBASE: 111.5 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 4,146 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $26,620

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $32,380

MPG RATING: 15 city, 19 hwy.

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