by Greg Wilson
Kamloops, British Columbia – Ford brought media representatives from around the world to this scenic corner of British Columbia’s ‘Interior’ to test-drive the redesigned 2003 Expedition, a vehicle that has undergone more changes than might appear from its mildly revised styling which now makes it look more like the mid-sized Explorer (only bigger).
Canadian-spec Expeditions will come in XLT ($44,760) and Eddie Bauer ($52,385) trim levels, and fully-optioned Eddie Bauer models will top out at about $60,000. Though prices are higher for 2003, Ford says there hasn’t really been a price increase because there’s more standard equipment, including new 17 inch wheels and tires, fold-flat third-row seat, and new 40/20/40 split second row seat.
The 2003 Expedition’s new independent rear suspension, redesigned interior, and improved steering are the features that Expedition owners will probably appreciate the most. These changes translate into significantly improved ride and handling, more precise steering, and more flexible seating and cargo-carrying options that large families will really appreciate.
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First, the Expedition’s new independent rear suspension, a coil-over-shock double wishbone arrangement with a full 228 mm (9 in.) of wheel travel, significantly improves the Expedition’s ride, handling, and control over bumpy roads. After all, this is a big 4X4 vehicle that weighs two and half tons (2580 kg), and is intended to be used on backroads in winter and summer where conditions are not ideal. I found that the new Expedition feels smaller on the road, easier to drive, and more manageable — whether at slow speeds on potholed backcountry roads, on twisty paved two-lane roads, or on the freeway. The 2003 Expedition is the first full-size SUV to offer an independent rear suspension, and a new air-suspension, which will provide load levelling and increased ground clearance, will be coming later this year.
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Ford says the Expedition’s new hydroformed chassis is 70% stiffer in torsional rigidity and includes new sound-deadening, vibration-dampening foam filler which provide much-improved noise and vibration isolation. The passenger cabin is 42% stiffer than the previous Expedition, all of which adds up to a quieter, more comfortable cabin.
Big, heavy vehicles also need good brakes, and Ford didn’t neglect this area. The 2003 Expeditions new larger disc brakes (13 in. front/13.5 in. rear) have calipers that are twice as stiff as before, improving pedal feel, reducing brake fade, and improving stopping distances. The brakes include standard ABS and electronic brake force distribution to even out front to rear braking forces. New for 2003 is an automatic Brake Assist feature that provides full braking power in an emergency. As well, AdvancTrac stability control, an anti-skid system, is available as an option.
The 2003 Expedition’s new variable-assist power rack and pinion steering (which replaces recirculating ball) is more precise and responsive than before, and combined with the superior tracking capabilities of its new suspension and the Expedition’s wider track makes the 2003 Expedition much easier to drive on a curvy road — or for that matter tracking on a long straight highway. I really enjoyed the improved driving dynamics of the new Expedition, and I’m sure it will be much easier to drive when towing a boat or recreational trailer. By the way, the new Expedition has a maximum towing capacity of 8900 lb (up from 8200 lb.) and a minimum ground clearance of 226 mm (8.9 in.).
Engine choices are the same as before, but the engines have been revised to reduce noise and vibrations: a 230 horsepower 4.6 litre V8 is standard on XLT and a 260 horsepower 5.4 litre V8 with ‘best-in-class’ torque of 350 lb-ft at 2500 rpm is optional on XLT and standard on Eddie Bauer. The standard transmission is a heavy-duty 4-speed automatic with a column shifter.
All Canadian Expeditions come with Control Trac four-wheel-drive (2WD models are available in the U.S.) which 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 fuel savings. In 4H, the transfer case locks up providing a constant front to rear torque split. In A4WD, the Expedition run in rear-wheel-drive most of the time, but when the rear wheel 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.
I had the opportunity to drive the Expedition on a closed off-road course that included some very steep grades on loose gravel, a slippery mud hole, a snow-covered track through the wilderness, and a ‘roller’ designed to demonstrate what will happen when only one wheel has traction. The Expedition’s Control Trac certainly offers more choices than the full-time 4WD systems offered in some of its competitors, but for most purposes A4WD is all you need. It automatically sends torque to the wheels that need it on slippery surfaces, but is quite comfortable running on dry surfaces.
However, if you plan to do some serious off-roading, you may want to invest in AdvancTrac, because it helps regain traction when one side of the vehicle has no traction or even if just one wheel has traction. The Expedition is remarkable in that it can tackle steep grades and horrendous roads while still feeling quite comfortable — the ride is astoundingly good over rough, rocky surfaces and the passengers almost feel like detached observers who aren’t really there! The Expedition has great visibility, but the flat hood makes it hard to see over the brow of an upcoming dip. Low Range is useful when descending steep, slippery roads to avoid braking and sliding. I was very impressed with the off-pavement abilities of the Expedition, and my only concern would be that it’s such a nice vehicle that I really wouldn’t want to scratch the paint heading through the bush!
Chances are, many Expedition owners will never go off road — with standard 8-passenger capability, rear a/c and heating controls, and optional rear DVD entertainment system, the Expedition is more like a luxury minivan than a 4X4. Big families will find this a very versatile family hauler, particularly now that it offers a fold-flat, third row, three-person bench seat. The new third row seat now folds flat when not in use — the previous third row seat, which weighed more than 70 lb., had to be carried out of the truck when not in use.
Due to the Expedition’s new lower cargo floor, the cargo area with the third row seat folded flat is the same area as the previous Expedition with the rear seat removed. With the new third seat folded down, there’s 1725 litres (60.9 cu. ft.) of cargo space, and even with the third seat in the up position, there’s 585 litres (20.6 cu. ft.) behind it. Uplevel Eddie Bauer models include a standard power folding third row seat — you just press a button near the side door or the rear hatch and either of the 60/40 split seats fold up and down. If a child should get their hand stuck in between the seats, the power rear seats will automatically stop moving.
As well, the Expedition’s new 40/20/40 split folding second row seatbacks will also fold flat, creating a load floor that is 2216 mm (87.2 in.) long, and 33 mm (1.3 in.) wider than the previous model. In addition, the 40/20/40 centre row seat has a centre seat that slides forward to allow parents in the front seat to reach their youngsters in a child seat, and the sliding seat includes LATCH attachments.
2003 Eddie Bauer models now come with standard heated/cooled front seats which provide a soothing flow of cooling air from small holes in the cushion and backrest on hot summer days, and heated air on cold day. I tried the cooling function, and found it kept my pants and shirt dry when otherwise they may have become sweaty. This feature will be especially useful in hot, humid areas of the country.
2003 Expeditions have improved safety features as well — they are now available with curtain airbags which drop down from the roof to protect the heads of both first and second row passengers in the event of a side impact or rollover. The 2003 Expedition also has dual stage front airbags which deploy with less or more force depending on the severity of the crash, and a driver’s seat position sensor. The Expedition’s front bumper is now compatible with the height of passenger car bumpers to prevent over-riding in a frontal or rear collision. Another optional safety feature I really like is the Reverse sensor which issues audible warnings if an object is behind the vehicle when backing up.
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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.