If it weren’t for the controversy surrounding Ford Explorers and Firestone tires, the arrival this month at dealerships of an all-new Explorer would be cause for unbridled superlatives.

The 2002 Explorer is more refined, has a smoother ride, better handling, more convenience features, a new V-8 engine option and a long list of other improvements.

It’s a huge leap forward over the sport-utility vehicle it replaces, which last year was still the best-selling passenger vehicle in the United States.

But Ford likely will have to go a long way to convince some potential buyers that this new Explorer will not be plagued by the problems of the old Explorer, which, when equipped with certain types of Firestone tires, has been linked to more than 160 deaths due to tire blowouts and resulting rollovers.

The first step will come in pointing out that the 2002 Explorer has an entirely different suspension than the outgoing model.

At the rear, the new Explorer rides on a fully independent coil spring suspension, which replaces the old solid rear axle and leaf spring setup. At the front, the torsion bar suspension has been replaced with a coil spring setup.

Chris Allard, Explorer product development engineer for suspensions, said the chassis changes were not in response to the blowout/rollover controversy.

“The suspension design on the ’02 Explorer — all of the fundamental architecture — had been established well before the Firestone problem,” Allard says.

He says the change was motivated by consumer demands.

“We looked at the comments from the customers and the biggest thing they were telling us is they wanted the ride to be better — more comfort, better handling — without giving up the utility factors,” he says.

He also says that few if any Explorers will be delivered with Firestone tires, with Ford instead relying on Goodyear and Michelin.

Ford also has tried to make sure all production Explorers were defect-free from the start. Delivery to dealers has twice been delayed due to a slow, cautious ramp-up of the production line.

A look at the standard and optional equipment on the 2002 Explorer does show that Ford has responded to a variety of safety concerns associated with SUVs in general.

The front bumpers are positioned lower so they won’t ride up and over a smaller vehicle in a crash.

Sensors will tell the front airbags to deploy at varying speeds by monitoring how close the driver is sitting to the steering wheel and whether people in the front seat are wearing safety belts.

Side impact airbag curtains that deploy from the ceiling are optional, and later this year they will be linked to sensors that can detect if a rollover is imminent.

When the sensors believe the vehicle is about to roll over, it will deploy the side curtain airbags and keep them inflated for up to six seconds to help prevent rollover injuries.

An optional tractio n and stability control system will help drivers maintain control when a skid is imminent.

No other SUV in the Explorers price range — sticker prices start at about $24,000 for a four-door, two-wheel drive model, about the same as last year’s model — offers such an array of safety equipment.

Other improvements abound.

There’s optional third-row seating that expands Explorer’s people capacity to seven, and there’s plenty of headroom back there, though knee room is somewhat limited.

A new rear door arrangement allows the rear window to flip up independent of the tailgate for quick loading of small items.

The exterior has been changed only slightly, with the new model growing two inches in width. That added width, combined with standard 16-inch wheels and less front and rear body overhang give the new Explorer a more muscular look.

Base power remains the 4.0-liter overhead camshaft V-6, but the 4.6-liter overhead camshaft V-8 from the F-150 is w optional.

Driving the 2002 Explorer is akin to driving the Lexus RX 300 or some of the other current car-based SUVs.

It’s smooth, steers crisply, has a shorter turning radius than before, and is quieter. Yet the Explorer remains a truck-based SUV that promises exceptional heavy duty performance that includes up to 7,000-pounds of towing capacity.

If Ford can convince people that the blowout/rollover issue is a thing of the past, this new, much improved Explorer should continue to be the best-selling SUV in America.