Ford's Explorer--the nation's best-selling sport utility since little red wagons--is an awesome act to follow. Even for Ford, where frowns are darkening as praise for its redesigned, flashier four-wheeler seems to be hung up on something. Among early returns:

* Motor Trend's 1995 Truck of the Year is not the Explorer, but hot rival Chevrolet's Blazer.

* The 1995 North American Truck of the Year is the Chevy Blazer, and Automobile magazine's All-Star Sport Utility award went to the Land Rover Discovery.

* In a recent Car & Driver comparison of the nation's most popular sport utilities, Jeep's Grand Cherokee copped first spot, Blazer was second and Explorer flopped home third. In a field of three.

* Although no review has amounted to an assassination, most critiques have damned Explorer by politeness, and with amiable dissatisfaction a perceptible whisper between paragraphs.

It's an odd faltering for Explorer and a thorough redo that shows design daring, inside and out, and styling transforming the vehicle from cubic klutz to aerodynamic capsule.

Anti-lock brakes and two air bags have been added. There's a nifty system for engaging four-wheel drive that makes simple push-button shifting look like hard work. Also a more sophisticated front suspension to better suit Explorer for its primary purpose: driving families through suburbs, not taking loners across mud flats.

So what is wrong with this picture?

Price could be a problem.

Explorer goes on sale this month with a base sticker of $19,500 for a standard two-door with ordinary two-wheel drive. A similarly equipped Jeep Cherokee costs only $16,000, while that all-triumphant Chevy Blazer starts at $18,100.

Styling will shock some.

Maybe Explorer is too aerodynamic, too roly-poly with a chromium grille that is three mouths and a cartoon grin straight from Toontown. Wheel wells are double flared. What isn't round about doors, windows and roof edges is gently sloped.

It's the appearance of harmless; soft visuals that remove strength from what should be presenting itself as a firm, purposeful object. Imagine going to war in an turquoise tank.

In truth, the naked base model, shorn of up-market tritones, pin stripes, chrome and its American Gladiator suit, is a more handsome, more serious vehicle.


Will the jury now regard Explorer's engine.

There are 18 nameplates in the viciously competitive sport-utility pack. Almost all rely on V-6 engines, with meat-eating V-8s the preserve of full-size carryalls that are little more than covered trucks seating a dozen 49ers and the Super Bowl trophy.

But Explorer's V-6 offers only 160 horsepower, which is probably less than Steve Young's arm. And just about the muscle Explorer was born with five years ago.

Blazer, however, comes with 195 horsepower. Cherokee's V-6 develops 190. Most important, the Blazer is significantly lighter than Explorer, while the Cherokee weighs a whopping 900 pounds less.

The interior is attractive enough; fresh, bright and functional without being a jazzy victim to style and colors. Dials are highly visible, boldly informative. Wherever one expects the knobs and stalks to be, that's where they are.

These are perfect ergonomics.

But whoever designed the seats should get the gas chamber. Or at least be sentenced to life on Interstate 10 in one of these chairs that are baggy, pummel the lumbar and flatten to cushioned boards on long drives.

The seating position, of course, is high and superior with last year's acres of glass held over to provide super visibility. But don't look back through the inside of the vehicle. All you'll see is a stand of headrests.


Now the better news.

Since introduction five years ago, Explorer has risen to claim about 25% of the sport-utility segment. There's enormous prestig in that, and such emotional appeal is not easily lost.

On-road manners have been improved enormously for such a tall vehicle. It will seem to the seat of experienced pants that Explorer performs better on asphalt than it does in glop.

And if one transmission innovation doesn't develop glitches, it could become the envy of the industry.

Ford calls it Control Trac.

A computer automatically senses when rear wheels are slipping and then transfers torque to the front wheels. In a microsecond, with no input from the driver beyond presetting dashboard rotary switch on "4WD AUTO," the vehicle goes from two-wheel to four-wheel-drive.

Three settings are self-explanatory and lock the vehicle in each mode. "2WD . . . 4WD LOW . . . 4WD AUTO." With the latter dubbed by its maker: "Set and forget."

A side benefit of the system is automatic disengagement and a return to rear-wheel drive when road conditions permit. That means less wear and tear on the front axle and transmission components, a concern that in earlier years prevented Explorer and other sport utilities from running on dry pavement with four-wheel-drive engaged.

Fit and finish of the Explorer is equal to any vehicle from Ford, which is always high quality. No piece of equipment feels antiquated or implies a need to be treated kindly. The tailgate requires a minimum of muscle. The vehicle is no sprinter from rest--no sport utility is--but in mid ranges it certainly has enough power to get out of its own way.

Explorers come as two-doors and four-doors, with four-speed automatics and five-speed manuals. There are four trim levels and a dozen models topping out at the four-door, 4WD Limited Edition for $34,420--although that is what one would pay for a fully loaded Land Rover Discovery with its V-8, royal aura and dinosaur talents in the rough.

So we suspect this Explorer is built for moms and pops, pets and tubas, and keeping all safe and dry on icky weekend commutes to rained out Little League games.

Which makes Explorer more station wagon than pipeline prowler. Which could be Ford's smartest move yet.

1995 Ford Explorer XLT

Cost As tested, $29,835 (Includes two air bags, anti-lock disc brakes, automatic transmission, air conditioning, Control Trac as standard. Also optional leather seats, luggage rack, fog lamps, power moon roof, CD changer and premium sound system.)

Engine 4.0-liter, push-rod V-6 producing 160 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, 4WD, four-door sport-utility.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 11.5 seconds. Top speed, governed, 105 m.p.h. Fuel economy, EPA city and highway, 15 and 19 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 4,442 pounds.