The wind blew west at 20 mph, pushing a heavy mist across the roads of this chilled industrial town.
I should have been in the 2002 Ford Explorer XLT I left at home in Virginia. Instead, I was cruising along snow-bordered expressways in a late-model Cadillac DeVille sedan.
Sometimes life doesn’t make sense. Things fall apart. The center doesn’t hold. Up is down, and the Explorer isn’t where it should be — not here with me and not, any longer, sitting at the top of buyer-preference lists for sport-utility vehicles.
The folks at Ford Motor Co. will argue with that. They’ll point to numbers and say, “See, we’re still the best-selling SUV in the country.” Or they’ll ask you to take the long view, to look at global sales of the Explorer since its 1990 introduction. From that perspective, they’ll declare it the most popular SUV in the world.
But the Ford people know the truth. We all do. The Explorer took a blow to its integrity. It was the Firestone tire thing, last year’s industrial scandal that rocked the Explorer’s reputation the way Monica Lewinsky rocked the Clinton White House.
Tread separation on Firestone tires on 1990s-era Explorers led to scores of rollover accidents, many of them fatal.
Though Ford did a masterful job of shifting much of the blame for those failures to Firestone, the automaker’s protestations appeared to have little credibility for many consumers.
The tire scandal broke just as Ford was unwrapping prototypes of the 2002 Explorer to take care of another problem with the vehicle — boredom.
In its decade on the market, the Explorer had moved from being different and exciting to being expected. It lacked the intimidation factor of gargantuan sport-utility vehicles such as the Hummer or the Ford Excursion. It had none of the charm or driving ease of mini-SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, and it lacked the prestige of super-lux SUVs such as the BMW X-5 and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
New competitors, including the Toyota Sequoia and the Hyundai Santa Fe, keep coming. Ford had to get the 2002 Explorer right.
But whether the new Explorer will find a home in a newly skeptical marketplace remains to be seen. Here’s betting that it’ll make a comeback.
The Firestone tires are gone, for one thing. They’ve been replaced by standard Michelins (P235/70Rx16 OWL). If nothing else, that should give some would-be buyers peace of mind.
An even more substantial change, in terms of vehicle stability, is a much-improved suspension system. The excessive rear bounce is gone, thanks to the installation of an independent rear suspension that allows the back wheels to individually handle bumps and dips in the road without upsetting the vehicle.
The new Explorer has more interior space — also arranged more sensibly — than its predecessor. It is easier to enter and exit the vehicle, thanks to a lower interior floor. Outboard seats are now closer to door openings, which are wider — all of which eliminate the need to stretch, bend and pull your body into a middle seat. And there’s an optional third seat for the two rear-most passengers.
Storage compartments and cup, juice-box and bottle holders abound — as does horsepower. The tested Explorer XLT was powered by the standard 210-horsepower 4-liter V-6, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission.
I did no towing on the Virginia drive and thus felt no need for extra power. But haulers of boats and trailers might want the optional 239-horsepower 4.6-liter V-8.
The new Explorer is available in two-wheel-drive (rear) or the tested four-wheel-drive version. You can get it plain (XLS), modestly outfitted (XLT), fancy (Eddie Bauer) or extravagant (Limited).
I just wish I had the Explorer here in Rochester. That wind is still blowing. The sky is turning ch al. It appears it’s going to snow.