SAN DIEGO--The 2001 Explorer Sport Trac is great for those who like to play dirty and stay clean. Playing dirty, as in hauling muddy mountain bikes or bags of peat moss and wood mulch, and staying clean, meaning keeping the mud and muck out of the
passenger compartment. This segment busting part-truck, part-SUV is what Ford calls an "and" vehicle (everything an SUV is "and" more). Explorer sales have grown from 250,000 in 1991 to 440,000 last year, and the Sport Trac
gives them access to another group of buyers. Production at the Louisville, Ky., plant is underway and it should begin showing up in dealer showrooms this month. Prices will start at $23,050 for two-wheel drive and $25,800 for four-wheel drive.
After a short drive in a preproduction vehicle in early December, it was easy to see that Ford has a potential hit on its hands. Powered by a 205-horsepower, 4.0-liter, overhead-cam V6 engine, it delivers a modest amount of power in a smooth, unobtrusive
way. The five-speed automatic transmission is a model of civility. (A five-speed manual will be offered later in the year.) Based on its intended use mostly as a passenger car, the Sport Trac's suspension is tuned so the
ride is more supple than a small truck but firmer than a passenger car. Driving through turns on mountain roads, it was more secure and agile than the regular Explorer. The styling is appealing in an outdoor, camping-gear sort of way that stresses
function over fashion. The fact that it is capable of a wide variety of uses appeals to me most. The Sport Trac had its genesis in the 1996 Adrenalin concept vehicle that appeared at a few auto shows, including the one in Kansas City. Public
reaction to that vehicle was so positive that Ford pulled it from the show circuit in hopes that other automakers wouldn't notice the crowds around it and try the same thing. They were only partially successful because other companies have similar
vehicles under development, but Ford can boast that it got the Sport Trac to market first. The Sport Trac, with a wheelbase of 125.9 inches, is built on an Explorer frame that has been lengthened 14.25 inches. The frame has been stiffened for a
better ride, which is now almost as supple as a passenger car. A composite cargo box, slightly more than 4 feet long, is impervious to rust, and the molded black lining resists scratches and dents from rugged loads.
Tie-downs, 10 in all, are provided for securing cargo, and they are strong enough to move a refrigerator, Ford says. A lockable cargo cover is optional, as is a removable plastic divider that allows the box to be partitioned into two separate
areas. Another useful option is a tubular bed extended that folds out onto an open tailgate and extends the bed's length to 6 feet. Sport Trac can haul a payload of about 1,500 pounds and tow more than 5,
000 pounds. The cabin is basically the same size as a standard Explorer, and even though the back seat looks smaller, it has as much head, leg and shoulder room as the regular Explorer. The 60/40 rear seat can be folded down to hold large items.
The back window is a power unit, unique in this kind of application. Ford designed low-back bucket seats to open up the space inside the truck and keep back-seat passengers from feeling isolated. The
instrument panel has light-faced gauges like those in a sport sedan, and a new radio that uses push buttons for tuning rather than a knob, which is more intuitive. A removable nylon sport bag sits inside the console. Fitted with a strap and side
netting, it can be used to carry snacks, CDs, cell phones or even lunch. A thick rubber covering is used on the floor so it can be cleaned out easily when it gets dirty. It also cuts down on the amount of road noise that filters int
the cabin. Berber carpet floor mats lend a civilized feel. Cloth seats are standard, but leather is optional, and the leather option includes a rear console with separate audio and climate controls, cupholders and two headphone jacks. A
small storage compartment, big enough for a camera, is behind the back seat on the driver's side. The back seat also has tether anchors for three child safety seats. Other items of note: Anti-lock brakes are standard. A
battery saver cuts off all interior lights after 40 minutes to keep from running down the battery. Noise abatement includes laminated steel in the instrument panel, thick door seals and sound-deadening material in the door and
windshield pillars. The frame is coated with rust-resistant primer, a first for Ford. Price Base prices range from $23,050 to $25,800. Warranty Three years or 36,000 miles. There is no At a Glance box because this was
a drive of a preproduction vehicle. We will review a regular production vehicle when one becomes available. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 4.0-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: automatic CONFIGURATION: Two-wheel or four-wheel drive WHEELBASE:
125.9 inches CURB WEIGHT: 4,400 lbs. BASE PRICE: $23,050 to $25,800 MPG RATING: 16 city, 19 hwy.