2003 Ford Expedition
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by Greg Wilson

Big SUV has improvements to ride, handling, steering

As I was writing this column, a new book called “High and Mighty: SUVs, the World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way,” was released in North America. Written by New York Times correspondent Keith Bradsher, the book is a scathing criticism of SUV’s and even the people that drive them. In the book’s introduction, Bradsher says SUV’s “roll over too easily, killing and injuring occupants at an alarming rate, and are dangerous to other road users, inflicting catastrophic damage to cars that they hit and pose a lethal threat to pedestrians.”

Bradsher is perhaps the harshest of many vocal SUV critics, ranging from environmentalists to safety advocates, who decry SUV’s size, weight, poor fuel consumption, and alleged roll-over propensity.

Despite this hue and cry, recent increases in SUV sales indicates that many vehicle buyers are not listening to this message, or just don’t believe it. In the month of August, sales of sport utility vehicles in Canada increased dramatically, and most automakers have touted plans to increase the number of SUV variants – from luxury SUV’s to car-like compact SUV’s – that they offer to the public.

With this in mind, I pondered exactly how I would write a review of the revised 2003 Ford Expedition – a full-size, seven passenger SUV that weighs more than two and a half tons.

The answer is, of course, “very carefully”. And you thought auto journalists had an easy job..


Yes, it’s big

Ok, there’s no denying the Expedition is big. With an overall length 5,228 mm (205.8 in.), width of 2,000 mm (78.7 in.), and height of 1,971 mm (77.6 in.), the Expedition is bigger than a Chevy Tahoe but not quite as big as a Suburban. For 2003, the Expedition’s track width has been increased by 1.7 in.- but that’s a good thing, because it improves stability and handling.

In fact, many of the changes to the 2003 Expedition were made to improve safety. Its new independent rear suspension (coil-over-shock double wishbone) is probably the most important change because it improves ride, handling and lateral stability in typical highway use. It also lowers the rear cargo floor to allow third row passengers more legroom and headroom, and increase cargo space. The frame, which is now 70% stiffer, is also lower, which lowers the step-in height on 4X4 models, and improves lateral stability and rollover resistance.

2003 ford Expedition
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In the event of a frontal crash with an automobile, a new front ‘bumper bar’ helps prevent the Expedition from over-riding the lower front-end of a typical passenger car.

The Expedition’s new variable-assist power rack and pinion steering system replaces the previous recirculating ball steering system, making steering easier and more accurate. As well, the 2003 Expedition now has the largest brake rotors in its class (13 inches front, 13.5 inches rear) with calipers twice as stiff as before, providing improved pedal feel, reduced fade and shorter stopping distances. Disc brakes with ABS and EBD (electronic brake differential) to prevent wheel lockup are standard.

In addition, a new Brake Assist feature provides full braking power in an emergency – even when the driver doesn’t immediately apply full force to the brake pedal. This can reduce braking distance 20 percent or more in real-world conditions, says Ford.

Ford’s optional 4X4 system, called ControlTrac, features a transfer case that divides torque front-to-rear in part-time 4Hi and full-time A4WD modes. As well, an optional AdvanceTrac system uses electronic braking to transfer torque side-to-side. With these two systems, the Expedition can extract itself from muddy bogs and icy roads even if only one or two wheels have traction.

2003 Ford Expedition
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Speaking of wheels, or tires, the 2003 Expedition now has larger standard 17 inch tires and wheels for improved traction, and a tire pressure monitor to warn of low inflation.

Ford went to great lengths to improve occupant protection on the inside as well.
Ford’s ‘Personal Safety System’ includes a seat track sensor, (to match the driver’s air bag deployment to the driver’s size and crash severity) safety belt pretensioners, load-limiting retractors, safety belt buckle sensors, dual-stage driver and passenger air bags and optional curtain air bags that enhance head protection in side impacts.

The optional side curtain air bag cushions impacts and helps to reduce the potential for occupant ejection. The Expedition features electronic rollover sensors that measure whether the vehicle is tilting, how fast the lean angle is changing and whether the combination means the vehicle is headed for a rollover. The curtain air bags remain inflated for up to 6 seconds – far longer than conventional airbags – to provide additional occupant protection. This system was first introduced on the 2002 Ford Explorer.


Driving impressions

2003 Ford Expedition

2003 Ford Expedition
Click image to enlarge

Perhaps because of its size, or its mass, or its excellent visibility, the Expedition certainly feels safe. My experience with SUV’s is that full-size models are considerably wider than mid-sized models, and have better handling and stability, and less lean in the corners. The new Expedition, with all of the improvements I’ve mentioned, is easier to handle, steer, brake and maneuver than the previous model – which wasn’t that bad anyway. For the 2003 model, handling, ride and control are noticeably better on bumpy secondary roads.

As well, new sound-deadening, vibration-dampening foam filler provides a quieter cabin, and there’s surprisingly little wind noise for such a tall vehicle.

Around town, the Expedition suddenly feels bigger, and parking can be a challenge – but with the optional rear Reverse sensors which beep more frequently as you approach an object behind, even tight parking spots can be managed – I’d highly recommend this feature because it is impossible to see the front of the car behind you when backing up. With a turning diameter of 11.8 38.7 feet (11.8 meters), the Expedition is surprisingly maneuverable for such a big vehicle.

In Canada, all Expeditions come with Control Trac four-wheel-drive (2WD models are available only in the U.S.). The Control Trac system includes a dash-mounted dial that allows you to switch between 2WD (rear-wheel-drive, re-introduced for 2003), full-time A4WD (can be used on pavement or off-pavement), part-time 4WD (off-pavement only), and 4WD Low Range (for slow going and steep descents).

The revised Control Trac system now disengages the front driveshaft when in 2WD which reduces wear and tear and noise and contributes to slightly better fuel consumpton. In 4H, the transfer case locks up providing a constant front to rear torque split. In A4WD, the Expedition operates in rear-wheel-drive most of the time, but when the rear wheels slip, engine torque is distributed from the rear to the front via a transfer case clutch. Combined with AdvancTrac traction control which brakes selective wheels, engine torque can be transferred from side to side as well. The Expedition is one of the few 4X4’s capable of moving forward if only one rear wheel has traction, and may be the only 4X4 that can move forward if just one front wheel has traction.

My top-of-the-line Eddie Bauer model had the optional 5.4-litre Triton V8 which has 260 horsepower at 4500 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque at just 2,500 rpm. That latter figure is what really counts, because it gives the Expedition responsiveness in low and mid-range acceleration, and reasonably good passing power. It also gives the Expedition a class-leading 8,900 lb. towing capacity, and a payload capacity 733 kg (1,615).

Fuel consumption is terrible: averaging around 17 litres per 100 kilometres (18 mpg), but it does use Regular Unleaded.

Base XLT models come with a standard 4.6-litre V8 with 232 horsepower at 4,750 rpm and 291 lb.-ft. at 3,450 rpm – I would recommend upgrading to the 5.4 litre engine simply because this vehicle is so heavy. The difference in fuel consumption between the two engines is only about 2 mpg.

All Expeditions have a heavy-duty 4 speed automatic transmission with overdrive lockout button which changes quickly and smoothly most of the time, but occasionally changes jumps into gear under acceleration.

2003 Ford Expedition
2003 Ford Expedition
2003 Ford Expedition
click image to enlarge

Interior impressions

I liked the Expedition’s simple, attractive dash layout, particularly the new flat black finish on the dashboard in front of the driver which reduces glare. The radio and heater controls are simple, although the buttons are relatively small by today’s standards, and just about everything is controlled by pushbuttons rather than rotary dials.

My top-of-the-line Eddie Bauer model had a two-tone beige interior with the blacked out dash and centre control panel, and four large metal trimmed air vents. The automatic transmission includes a column shifter with an on/off overdrive button at the tip. I also liked the easy-to-use dial near the steering wheel for switching between 2Hi, A4WD, 4Hi and 4Lo.

The raised centre console includes a large open storage bin under the conrol panel, two cupholders with flexible cup grips, and a huge covered storage bin between the front seats.

Eddie Bauer models have front seats with seat heaters with five temperature settings, and unique air conditioning that consists of cool air wafting through small holes in the seat inserts. This keeps you cool and dry on a really hot day. However, the seat heater/air conditioning controls are difficult to see on the front of the centre armrest.

The Expedition is very roomy inside. All three rows of seats have plenty of headroom and legroom, although the third seat is a little less comfortable. My car had the optional centre bucket seats which allow walk-through access to the third seat. The second row buckets have inboard armrests and can recline.

My test vehicle had the optional flip-down flat monitor and DVD player which can be viewed by second and third row passengers – but they must wear headphones to hear the audio. Second row passengers also have their own radio controls and heater/air conditioning controls which include fan speed and temperature adjustment. Both second and third row passengers have cupholders – I counted seven in all back there.

A couple of other features I liked about the Expedition: roof air vents for second and third row passengers; roof lighting; and turn signal indicators on the outside mirrors.

Cargo versatility is one of the Expedition’s strong points: the rear hatch door has an enormous pull-type handle which opens up easily to reveal a large hatch opening. As well, there’s a separate rear liftglass for chucking in smaller items. There’s not a lot of room behind the third row seats – maybe enough for seven paper grocery bags – but the split folding rear seats on the Eddie Bauer model can be folded down with the press of a button. On the previous model, the heavy third row bench seat had to be lifted out of the vehicle.

As well, the second row buckets, or bench, has fold-flat seatbacks, which creates a huge cargo area with a level floor that is 2216 mm (87.2 in.) long, and 33 mm (1.3 in.) wider than the previous model. Alternatively, you can flip up the second row seats. XLT Expeditions include a centre split 40/20/40 bench seat with a small centre seat that can be moved forwards in order that young children can be closer to the front seats.

Overall, the new Expedition is less ‘trucky’ and more family-oriented than last year’s Expedition, and a much more pleasurable vehicle to drive, particularly considering it’s a full-size SUV. In Canada, the full-size SUV segment is much smaller as a percentage than in the U.S., but here the high-end Eddie Bauer model is purchased by 70% of Expedition customers, compared to only 45% of customers in the U.S. Typical Canadian Expedition owners are 35 plus and well-to-do � most have household incomes between $70,000 and $170,000. But they’re not snobs though – most don’t want the attention and notoriety that a Lincoln Navigator would bring.


Competitor overview

2003 Ford Expedition
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The Expedition Eddie Bauer’s ($52,385) three main competitors are the Chevrolet Tahoe 4X4 ($51,265), GMC Yukon SLT 4X4 ($51,970) and Toyota Sequoia Limited V8 ($58,205). The Expedition is a bit bigger than the others, and has the most standard torque, the best towing capacity, and is the only one with an independent rear suspension and power folding rear seats. And it includes many unique safety features including the curtain air bags.


Verdict

A big SUV that’s surprisingly easy to drive, and extremely versatile – a good alternative to a minivan for the family that wants to head out to the cabin in summer or winter. But it’s heavy on gas and requires a pretty big parking spot.


Technical Data: 2003 Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer

Base price $44,760
Price as tested $52,385 (Eddie Bauer)
Type 4-door, 7 passenger full-size SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/Control Trac 4WD
Engine 5.4 litre V8, SOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 260 @ 4,500 rpm
Torque 350 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight 2,579 kg (5,686 lb.)
Tires P265/70R17 AT BSW
Wheelbase 3,023 mm (119.0 in.)
Length 5,228 mm (205.8 in.)
Width 2,000 mm (78.7 in.)
Height 1,971 mm (77.6 in.)
Ground clearance 226 mm (8.9 in.)
Payload capacity 733 kg (1,615 lb.)
Maximum towing capacity 8,900 lb.
Cargo volume 585 litres (20.6 cu. ft.) behind third seat; 1,725 litres (60.9 cu. ft.) behind 2nd seat; 3,128 litres (110.5 cu. ft.) all seats fold
Fuel consumption NA
Fuel Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km

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