The practical appeal of Ford's Explorer Sport Trac was perfectly clear when I needed to haul an inflatable moonwalk for my grandson's birthday party.

Part SUV, part truck, the Sport Trac has a full-size back seat that is big enough to hold two or three people. When you need to haul something big, like a pile of canvas that puffs up to be a moonwalk, you've got a bed that can be expanded to be almost as large as one in a pickup.

Pricing starts at $22,880 for the two-wheel-drive and ranges to $31,615 for the test vehicle, which was the XLT Premium Pioneer Edition. This special model is a $1,295 addition to the premium sport group, and it included a 485-watt Pioneer stereo with custom subwoofer, rear-window deflector and aluminum wheels. The zinc yellow paint job was almost as loud as the stereo, which will pop your eardrums if you really want it to.

The 210-horsepower, 4.0-liter, overhead-cam V-6 engine delivers a modest amount of power in a smooth, unobtrusive way. The five-speed automatic transmission is a model of smooth shifting and civility. It can haul a payload of 1,500 pounds and tow 5,300 pounds. An optional V-8 would be welcome, but it is not available.

The four-wheel-drive system is electronic, and it has a low range for off-road use. A limited-slip rear axle is also available for enhanced traction. Anti-lock brakes are standard.

The 2003 model will get disc brakes on the rear wheels and, later in the year, an optional side-curtain airbag system. The Sport Trac is built on a frame that has been lengthened to have a wheelbase of 125.9 inches. The frame, used for the previous generation Explorer, was stiffened for a better ride. The Sport Trac does not have the frame or independent rear suspension of the 2002 Explorer, so its ride lacks some of the suppleness of the newer vehicle.

The Sport Trac's composite cargo box, slightly more than 4 feet long, fits snugly up against the back of the cabin. Since it is not made from steel, it is impervious to rust, and the molded black lining resists scratches and dents from rugged loads. There are 10 tie-downs for securing cargo, and they are strong enough to move a refrigerator, Ford says.

The aluminum tubular cargo cage really extends the Sport Trac's usefulness. It fits into the back of the bed and, when folded out onto an open tailgate, creates a cargo space that is nearly 6 feet long. With the tailgate closed, it flips into the bed and creates a barrier that corrals small objects and keeps them from sliding around. It can also be removed when necessary.

Inside, the Sport Trac cabin is basically a mirror image of the previous Explorer. The floor is covered with thick rubber so it can be washed out if it gets dirty. The rubber also cuts down on the amount of road noise that filters into the cabin. Carpet mats go on top of the rubber floor.

Low-back front bucket seats keep rear-seat passengers from feeling claustrophobic. Although the back seat looks smal ler than a regular Explorer, Ford says it has as much head, leg and shoulder room. Cloth seats are standard, but considering how much easier it is to clean leather, I think the leather option is preferable. Besides, the leather package includes a rear console with separate audio and climate controls, cupholders and two headphone jacks. The 60/40 rear seat folds to accommodate large items, such as luggage, inside the cabin. The power rear window can be lowered for ventilation or access to the cargo box.

A small storage compartment, big enough for a camera, is built into the cabin wall behind the back seat. Tether anchors for three child safety seats are also standard.

The instrument panel has light-faced gauges that are easy to read and the stereo glows blue at night. Like most new stereos, the Pioneer unit is not as simple to operate as it could be.

The base price of the test truck was $29,115. The limited-slip rear axle, Pioneer Edition equipment leather seats and cargo cage brought the sticker price to $31,615.

Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: The Sport Trac is an ideal vehicle for people with an active, outdoor lifestyle. The cabin is as nice as any SUV, while the separate cargo bed keeps dirty items separate. The optional cargo cage can extend the bed length to 6 feet.

Counterpoint: A little more power would be welcome, especially when hauling a load. The Pioneer stereo sounds great but has somewhat cryptic controls.

Engine: 4.0-liter, 210-hp V-6
Transmission: automatic Four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 125.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,323 lbs.
Base price: $29,115
As driven: $31,615
Mpg rating: 15 city, 20 hwy.
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