by Paul Williams
Photos: Ford. Click image to enlarge
Selecting a location to introduce a new vehicle is based on several factors. Maybe it’s the unique environment, or perhaps the site is close to where the vehicle is built. Maybe there are roads close by that suit the character of the car.
For the debut of the 2006 Ford Explorer, Ford chose Lake Placid, New York, site of this year’s “Ironman USA Triathlon.”
“Part of the allure of the vehicle is its capability,” said Ford Division President Darryl Hazel. “At some part of each Explorer buyer is this Ironman connection.” Further emphasizing that connection, Ford is now the title sponsor for the Ironman USA Triathlon event.
Whether the Explorer is the Ironman of SUVs may be a matter of debate, but the personal trainers at Ford have put the new vehicle through its paces. With maximum towing capacity at 7,120 pounds (3,230 kilograms) when properly equipped, payload up 10% and available seating for seven occupants, this SUV is a formidable hauler of people and their heavy toys.
Three trim levels are offered: XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited, all with standard all-wheel drive. Under the hood of the XLT and Eddie Bauer versions, a choice between 4.0 litre V6 and 4.6 litre V8 engines provides 210 and 292 horsepower, and 254 and 300 pounds-feet of torque respectively. The Explorer’s V8 engine, standard on the Limited version, is up 53 hp over the 2005 model, and mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission (the V6 uses a five-speed automatic).
Fuel efficiency is improved by 10% for the V8, and emissions from the V6 achieve the same tailpipe standard as the Ford Escape Hybrid, making it an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV II is the U.S. standard).
The 2006 Explorer also features an all-new frame (Explorers have always been body-on-frame vehicles), new independent front and rear suspensions and improved braking. According to Ford the new frame is 63% more resistant to bending and 55% more resistant to twisting. Among other benefits, it permits the vehicle to be tuned for improved impact dampening that reduces body lean in corners.
For 2006, “tough luxury,” as Ford calls it, defines the Explorer. While it’s obviously got the grunt, it has also been to finishing school.
On the highway and driving around town, external noise in the cabin is virtually non-existent. It’s really quite something how big vehicles like the Explorer have become so silent (technically, this is a “mid-size” SUV, but with available three row seating and generous cargo capacity, it seems pretty big to me).
Click image to enlarge
Granted, some of the freshly paved roads around Lake Placid looked like they’d been polished overnight, such was the ride-flattering texture of their velvety smooth surfaces. But we did head into the bush on some rugged trails and broken pavement, and the Explorer was equally poised and refined.
Ford says this is the quietest Explorer ever. They’ve even made the climate control system 30% quieter, along with using special materials to reduce vibration and noise throughout the vehicle, and new butyl rubber body mounts to reduce noise, vibration and harshness in the ride. New insulation materials have been used in the headliner, door panels and floor; the exhaust system is improved, and aerodynamic drag is reduced.
But although you experience the effects of these enhancements as driver or passenger, you don’t really see them because they’re built into the vehicle. What you do see is the all-new interior, with its nicely tailored seats, panels and carpets, unique “safety” door pulls, and an attractive new instrument panel and dashboard.
Toward the rear, the second and third-row seats now fold completely flat when required (in the 2005 model, Ford admits, they folded “almost” flat). The third-row power-fold seat is a $1,065 option for the Eddie Bauer, but standard on the Limited, while a manual third-row seat is available for the XLT (both power and manual third row seating are now 50/50 split-folding). The new leather interior is particularly nice, with its available “Preferred Suede” two-tone seat surfaces and for the first time, the Explorer can be purchased with an available navigation system.
The exterior of the Explorer has also received extensive revision, with new grilles, front fenders and hood, and new rear treatments. The overall footprint of the vehicle remains the same as the outgoing model, but Ford says the changes, especially at the front, give it more presence. I would have to agree with this, as its signature broad, square lines seem tighter and more commanding. Chromed, 18″ wheels are available, with 16″ wheels standard on the XLT, and 17″ wheels standard on the Eddie Bauer and Limited.
Click image to enlarge
The 2006 Explorer is well equipped with safety features, including standard AdvanceTrac (vehicle stability control) with Roll Stability Control, front seat side airbags and available side curtain airbags (which I’d like to see standard, given their proven effectiveness in side collisions). Power adjustable pedals are also available. Ford says the new Explorer meets all known U.S. frontal- and side-impact crash requirements through 2010.
Since its introduction in 1990, over five million Explorers have been built, making it the segment leader for 15 years. While great strides have been made in refinement and sophistication, the fuel consumption of this class of vehicle is still very high. We achieved only 20.1 L/100km during the press introduction in our V8 Eddie Bauer (about 14 miles per Canadian gallon). But if you buy a solid, multi-passenger vehicle built to tow heavy trailers, this result should not come as a surprise.
Happily, while the price of fuel is going up, the price of Ford Explorers has come down for 2006. Must be all that “Ironman” working out.
At A Glance
Available: Fall 2006
All prices plus $1,050 freight