It was a cold dark night and I was with my friends Fran and Shelley, driving down a twisting, narrow wooded back road. This is not the sort of road you'd expect an SUV to handle with such ease.

Inside, the 2006 Ford Explorer's comfy seats pampered its occupants, while the audio system cranked out the holiday tunes. Just as we rounded a bend, out popped a deer.

For too many readers, you'll know what happened next.

Shelley screamed, Fran yelled, and I stood on the brakes. Hard.

The deer was less than a car length away. I had visions of a reshaped front end, and an explanation to Ford as to why they had to send their new truck to the body shop.

I shouldn't have worried.

Ford endows their SUVs with what they call ''AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control.'' This includes the expected drivetrain aids, such as traction control, four-wheel disc brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution to ensure proper braking pressure. It also includes two sensors to monitor vehicle roll motion at a rate of 150 times per second; if it senses a rollover situation, electronics take over to help prevent rollovers from occurring.

In addition, there are sensors throughout the cabin to ascertain what position the driver is sitting in and the size of the other occupants in the cabin. These sensors adjust the size and force of the airbags appropriately.

But we didn't crash, smash or resculpt the truck. It stopped with room to spare. It was a very impressive performance on a surprisingly impressive vehicle, one that proved to be as good as any SUV I have driven.

Certainly the ride and handling dynamics of the vehicle are positively car-like, despite being an SUV. That's thanks to a fully-independent suspension, which has been revised for 2006. In addition, Ford has strengthened the frame. This provides for adept handling, a firm, well-controlled ride and world-class refinement. This is what enabled me from avoiding a calamity.

Under the hood, a newly optional 4.6-liter V8 delivers 292 horsepower, 53 more horsepower than the two-valve 4.6-liter previously used. Despite the increase in power, fuel economy has improved by 10 percent, according to Ford. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, something you won't find in its competitors. A 4-liter V6 is standard, mated to a five-speed automatic. The drivetrain is unobtrusive, yet powerful, and very refined. Four-wheel-drive high and low are selectable through dash-mounted switches, or can be left in automatic mode.

Interior accommodations, while being less flashy than the Mercury Mountaineer, are quite good. Material quality is excellent. Switchgear throughout the cabin has been refined to a world class standard. Items such as the power window switches have been recessed into the armrest to prevent accidental activation. The door handle is contoured into the edge of the armrest, a clever design touch. The third row seats fold via power-activated switches.

Four trim levels are offered, XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited.

The center of the dash houses a GPS navigation system and pretty decent sound system that is easy to operate despite the many buttons. I never quite figured out how to dim the screen's glare, however.

Rear seat passengers have their own ventilation system, as well as a DVD player.

The new Explorer has received some tweaks to its styling as well, with a large chrome grille surround that adds just the right touch of bling. Its classic, conservative style is perfectly reflective of its new agility and sophisticated engineering revisions.

After spending a week with the new 2006 Ford Explorer, I'm convinced that Ford will easily maintain its leadership as selling America's most popular mid-sized SUV, a title the Explorer has held for 15 years.

It's also one of three vehicles nominated for North American Truck of the Year, an accolade it easily deserves.

If you're looking for a mid-size SUV, the Explorer is a must-drive vehicle, whether or not you encounter a deer in your headlights.

- - -


Engine: 4-liter V6 or 4.6-liter SOHC V8

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 113.7 inches

Length: 193.4 inches

Width: 73.7 inches

Weight: 4,777 pounds

Cargo volume: 13.6-83.8 cubic ft.

Ground clearance: 8.2 inches

Towing capacity: 7,050 pounds

Base price: $35,940

As tested: Not available

EPA rating: 14 city, 20 highway

Test mileage: 13.8 mpg

Fuel type: Regular

Built in: Louisville, Ky.

- - -