It’s easy to assume that after the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire controversy, which had Explorers rolling over after relatively high-speed tire failures, Ford might want to make some changes to the Explorer, needed or not, to help counter the negative publicity.

Ford has made plenty of changes for 2002, not because of any real or perceived shortcoming, but because it was time. Aside from the powertrains, the 2002 Explorer is all-new, and substantially improved.

An aside, though: We’re talking about the 2002 Explorer four-door. The 2002 Explorer Sport, which has two doors, and the 2002 Explorer Sport Trac, which is essentially a four-door pickup with a small, four- 4-foot bed, are based on last year’s Explorer.

The biggest single change to the ’02 Explorer, aside from the styling, is the rear suspension. The new Explorer gets an independent rear suspension, meaning that the rear wheels ride independent of each other, like a car’s. Most trucks and truck-based SUVs have a rigid rear axle – if the left rear wheel hits a pothole, part of the impact is transferred to the right rear wheel. With an independent rear suspension, the axle is hinged, so the left wheel can move up and down for the pothole, but the right wheel remains pretty much unaffected.

Not only does this improve **the** ride and **the** handling, but an independent rear suspension takes up less room. This let Ford engineers give the Explorer something they had never had space to add before: an optional third-row rear seat that folds into the floor when it isn’t needed. That rearmost seat is pretty cramped and hard to get to, but it’s essentially for kids, and given that, it works well.

Our test Explorer was an Eddie Bauer model, which differs from the top-of-the-line Limited model mostly in trim – the Eddie Bauer has two-tone paint. Base price for the rear-wheel-drive Explorer was $32,090; if you want four-wheel-drive, add about $2,000.

The 4.6-liter V-8 is an extra $695, and it’s a good value, because the 4.0-liter, 210-horsepower V-6, while adequate, doesn’t help much with fuel mileage. The V-8, with the excellent five-speed automatic transmission, gets 14 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway; the V-6 gets one mpg better.

The 2002 Explorer is built on a new frame that is much stronger and stiffer than the previous model. The ride remains a little truckish, but quite comfortable, and even on rough roads, this feels like a very solid sport-ute. The leather-trimmed interior will be familiar to current Explorer owners, because instruments and controls are right where they should be.

The test model had several options, including side-curtain air bags ($495), a trailer towing package ($395), auxiliary rear air conditioning ($610), a reverse-sensing system that warns of obstacles while backing ($255), and the aforementioned third seat ($620), bringing the bottom line to a moderately pricey $36,145. Be aware that there are cheaper Explore r models.

Even if you don’t particularly need the third seat, I’d get it, because it takes very little space, and will raise the resale value of the Explorer enough to pay for itself. That seven-passenger capability makes owning a sport-ute possible for plenty of customers who otherwise might have reluctantly bought a minivan.

Whether or not the Explorer can retain its crown as best-selling SUV remains to be seen, but Ford designers and engineers have done their part. The 2002 Explorer is a logical leap forward.

2002 Ford Explorer

Base price: $32,090

Price as tested: $36,145

EPA-rated fuel mileage: 14 mpg city, 19 mpg highway

Details: Seven-passenger sports-utility vehicle SUV powered by a 4.6-liter, 240-horsepower V-8, with a five-speed automatic transmission.