If last summer’s Ford/Firestone tragedies had never happened, then the 2002 Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers just arriving in showrooms would be praised as the new standard among mid-size sport-utilities.

How else to react to vehicles that are 2.5 inches wider to improve handling, roominess and safety? That get a standard third row of seats for the first time? That have new suspensions and a new premium engine? That have side-curtain air bags, adjustable pedals and a lower front bumper to do less damage to cars they might run into?

And, in the case of the Mountaineer that we test-drove recently, a slick exterior that’s cool and appealing and, most important, original?

Prices for the 2002 Mountaineer start at $29,330 for two-wheel-drive models equipped with a 4.0-liter V-6 engine and grow to $34,920 for all-wheel-drive, V-8-equipped versions. Prices include the destination charge.

Buyers entering the mid-size sport-utility market will find it awash with new product by springtime. In addition to the Explorer and Mountaineer and Toyota’s new Highlander, General Motors has redone its trio of choices, giving two of them new names as the Chevy TrailBlazer and the GMC Envoy join the Oldsmobile Bravada.

Since its arrival more than a decade ago, the Explorer has been the bestseller in the segment, with the Mountaineer emerging as an alternate choice for those who wanted everything that an Explorer offered except its everyman (and everywoman) presence.

That success seemed unlikely to change as Ford Motor readied new versions of these trucks, as executives authorized and engineers executed sweeping changes and countless improvements rather than just evolutionary alterations.

Then the Firestone firestorm exploded. Nightly newscasts were filled with images of overturned Explorers on the side of road in Texas and elsewhere as camera shots zoomed in on shredded tires.

In August, Firestone recalled more than 6 million tires. Federal investigators have collected reports of 174 deaths, 700 injuries and 6,000 complaints about tread separation, blowouts and other problems. Ford and Firestone engaged in a war of words, but the two companies haven’t severed their longtime business relationship.

One result of the flap is that buyers of the new Explorer and Mountaineer can ask for Goodyear or Michelin tires instead of Firestones.

Beyond that, the impact of the crisis on the public’s opinion of the Explorer is harder to determine. Explorer sales actually grew in 2000 (to 445,157 from 428,772 in 1999), but those numbers include a new model, the Explorer Sport Trac, which is half SUV and half pickup truck. Sales of four-door Explorers fell, although Ford won’t say by how much. Still, the Explorer remains the bestselling SUV in the industry.

Ford delayed the introduction of the 2002 Explorer/Mountaineer by several months in light of the Firestone controversy and several high-profile reca lls of its new-for-2001 Escape SUV. There’s no question the automaker knows it needs to get this vehicle right, and to convince the now-skeptical public of its continued goodness.

The ’02 Mountaineer I drove had a solid feel, like all of the Explorers and Mountaineers I’ve driven before. But it also had a much improved ride — thanks mainly to the wider body and the new independent rear suspension — both in terms of dynamics and in terms of road noise. Handling was a bit more crisp; steering was sharper.

The new 4.6-liter V-8 was very responsive. It makes 240 horsepower, a 25-horsepower boost over the 5.0-liter V-8 it replaces. (The 210-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 carries over as the standard engine.)

The all-wheel-drive system functions without any driver involvement. When sensors detect that wheels are slipping, torque is transferred to the tires that do have traction.

On the inside, the Mountaineer remains a spacious, functional choice. In fact, the wider ody adds width to the passenger compartment. This vehicle has always been accommodating for five adult passengers, but the addition of a third row of seats increases that to seven. Access to the back seats comes by folding away one of the second-row seats — an easy task. Room back there is adequate for adults.

Ignore the Firestone tragedy, and the ’02 Mountaineer emerges as a bold, category-defining statement. But, since ignoring it is imprudent and impossible, consider the ’02 model as a strong step toward convincing customers to keep the faith in the Explorer/Mountaineer family.