The Detroit News's view

There aren’t many nicer driving roads in North America than California’s Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway One or simply the PCH.

Our choice to negotiate the PCH, especially the twisty, mountainous route that snakes north from San Francisco toward Eureka, would be a little convertible or even a sport sedan.

Instead, we found ourselves recently tackling this challenging road in a 2002 Ford Explorer Limited 4×2 — a well-equipped sport-utility vehicle with a sticker price of $35,775.

We felt it was time to revisit the Explorer, a best-seller for a decade that suffered major image problems last year because of tire-related safety issues. It was extensively redesigned for the 2002 model year.

She: My first memory of this stretch of the PCH was watching a tow-truck driver drag a huge winch and a thick cable toward a cliff. Down below, a sedan had skidded off the road and was dangling over the Pacific. In other words, this is not a roadway for the faint of heart. And our experience in the Explorer was reassuring. It is still a fine performer. Our test vehicle hugged the curves and, besides huffing and puffing like a truck, handled every challenge beautifully.

He: It doesn’t take long to feel the changes that Ford made to the ’02 Explorer, notably the adaptation of an independent rear suspension. Ride control is improved, and so is ride comfort. I wouldn’t say the Explorer now rides and handles like a car, but it’s one of the best-behaved trucks we have driven in a while.

She: You can tell how good the Explorer is by how little we fought on the trip. It was like a second honeymoon — with both you and the Explorer.

He: Oh, boy. A romantic test drive. In a truck, no less.

She: It still doesn’t look very fancy on the outside, despite getting all-new sheetmetal because Ford was very conservative with the redesign. But the Explorer Limited we had was quite ritzy on the inside. It had six-way power leather bucket seats, a decent audio system with a six-disc CD changer and dual front/rear air conditioning. I was also impressed by just how much we crammed into it. We were out in California for a week on both business and pleasure, and wound up toting lots of luggage and gear.

He: And shopping bags. Good thing that third seat folds flat. We had no problem stowing all the weird items you felt compelled to purchase. Did I actually spot a lavender-scented candle in a bag?

She: Yes, it was a romantic drive.

He: Guess we’d better talk about horsepower then. The optional 4.6-liter V-8 in the Limited makes 240 horsepower, which felt more than adequate for tackling some of the steep hills and mountains we encountered in northern California. But that’s 30 horsepower less than you get with the standard 4.2-liter six-cylinder in the Chevrolet TrailBlazer. Also, our mileage was nothing to brag about, which is amazing considering our test vehicle didn’t have four-wheel drive. The EPA says you sh ould get 19 miles per gallon on the highway. We averaged closer to 16.

She: Always in the back of our mind on this drive were the safety issues. We never had a problem, even on those curvy roads through the redwood forests. Features on the new Explorer make it much safer. They include a tire-pressure monitoring system and optional side air curtains to protect you in a rollover accident. And our test vehicle had Goodyear tires, in case you were wondering.

He: I was concerned that the rear-wheel-drive Explorer does not come with traction control, which could be a real problem on icy roads. Having said that, we drove on some pretty wet pavement in the forest, and never had a traction issue.

She: We did have an issue with the price. The base price of the Explorer Limited is just over $32,000, and that’s with a V-6 engine and no four-wheel drive. That’s really expensive for what I consider America’s meat-and-potatoes SUV.

He: If you’re shopping in this category, I think you still need to take a close look at the TrailBlazer, especially the new long-wheelbase EXT. And if you still have your heart set on an Explorer, I’m not convinced the top-of-the-line is worth the extra money — not with the new Lincoln Aviator coming out later this summer for just a few grand more.

2002 Ford Explorer Limited

Anita’s rating: (Above average)

Paul’s rating: (Above average)

Likes: Powerful V-8 engine. Improved ride comfort and control. Strong safety features, including optional side curtains. Third-row seat for up to seven passengers. Lots of amenities, including leather seats, dual climate controls and six-disc CD changer.

Dislikes: Mediocre fuel economy, especially on a 4×2 vehicle. Pricey at $35,000-plus. 4×2 model lacks traction control. Chevy TrailBlazer’s six-cylinder engine is more powerful than Explorer’s V-8.

Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, seven-passenger utility vehicle.

Price: Base, $32,090; as tested, $35,775 (inc. $600 destination charge).

Engine: 4.6-liter V-8; 240-hp; 280 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, estimated by AAA Michigan: $1,228 (Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: St. Louis

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