It may seem like a no-brainer to soccer moms and Little League dads, but Ford Motor Co. said it did something radical in the development of its 2002 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer sport-utility vehicles.

For the first time ever with one of its trucks, the automaker tested the new vehicles – which go on sale early next year – through ordinary neighborhoods on a city course. The location was a five-mile route in San Diego. It took Ford test drivers past a school and a church and into a shopping-mall parking lot. Instead of navigating rough off-road terrain or flooring it on a straight-away on a traditional test track, drivers had to navigate around bicyclists, kids playing in the street and people walking dogs.

“There were two rules,” said Steve von Foerster, chief program engineer on Explorer and Mountaineer. “You must drive the speed limit and you must have the radio off. We wanted the opposite of a track experience. We wanted to put the vehicle in the environment where the owners are.”

As the city course story illustrates, model year 2002 marks the domestication of the Ford Explorer, the best-selling sport-utility vehicle in the world. Ford has been a leader in turning the sport-utility vehicle from a niche player into an undisputed top choice among mainstream buyers who now use them for commuting and carpooling. Ford has sold 3.6 million Explorers in the past decade and has discovered that Explorer buyers tend to be a loyal bunch. About 44 percent of Explorer owners are second- and third-time buyers of the popular SUV.

The new four-door Explorer and Mountaineer were shown to reporters last week, although they were not yet ready to test drive. Prices may be announced as early as November and are likely to be in the $30,000-plus range. (The 2001 Explorer Sport two-door was introduced earlier this year; there is no two-door version of the Mountaineer.)

Von Foerster said when Ford interviewed buyers about what they’d like to see changed on the Explorer, their top three priorities centered around noise – not fuel economy or styling. Many said the old engine was too loud and there was too much wind and road noise. Ford engineers said they’ve reduced powertrain noise on the new Explorer by 50 percent, wind noise by 25 percent and road noise by 20 percent. Ray Nicosia, vehicle engineering manager, said the cabin on the redesigned vehicles is equivalent to a Lincoln LS or a luxury sedan when it comes to quietness.

“You’re not going to have to raise your voice much to be understood,” Nicosia said. “You’ll be able to hear your kids in the back.”

While the 2002 Explorer is still a truck, it is much more car-like, refined and family-friendly. It has a tighter turning circle – the better to squeeze into a garage or parking space. The vehicles are also wider, which adds to a greater feeling of security and stability. To compete with SUVs such as the Dodge Durango, the Explorer gets optional third-row seating for the first time. Instead of five passengers, the new Explorer can fit up to seven passengers.

There is a list of cutting-edge safety equipment, including an optional side-curtain air bag that stays inflated for six seconds – longer than a traditional air bag – to keep occupants in place in a rollover crash.

For the first time, Explorer buyers can opt for adjustable pedals and a telescoping steering wheel, two features sure to appeal to shorter people anxious to distance themselves from the driver’s-side air bag. Ergonomics engineer Elizabeth Johnston said Ford is also looking at putting an optional entertainment system in the new Explorer.

Horsepower has improved, but gas mileage has barely changed from 2000 to 2002, despite the company’s widely publicized campaign to hike the average fuel economy of all its utility vehicles by five miles a gallon by 2005. Part of the problem is that the new SUVs are several hundred pounds heavier than their predecesso . The base 2002 Explorer 4×4, for instance, weighs 4,334 pounds – 459 pounds more than the current model.

While the new Explorer gets a modest exterior redesign, its sister Mountaineer gets a fairly dramatic restyling that transforms it from non-descript to noticeably edgier and more aggressive. Bright exterior chrome is replaced by an attractive satin-finish aluminum.