Since its debut in 1990, the Ford Explorer has been one of the most ubiquitous 4x4s on the planet. According to Ford, more than 5 1/2 million Explorers have been sold to date, and it's been the best-selling vehicle in its class for 15 years running. But given the quantum leaps in power, suspension tech, and traction control made in recent years by the competition-including the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Lexus GX 470, and Land Rover LR3-it was time for a refreshening of the Explorer, which last saw a major redesign four years ago. Ford decided to go one better for 2006, reengineering the Explorer from the frame up-and the new-for-'06 Explorer sports an all-new chassis, suspension, transmission, interior trim, and exterior sheetmetal. And 50 more ponies underhood.
The Ford's new chassis utilizes the tube-through-tube design found in the F-150, in which crossmembers pass through the framerails before being welded together to form a fully boxed seam. The result is a stronger joint that is more rigid and resistant to torsional loads than a conventional sectional chassis. It also allowed the Explorer's four-wheel independent suspension-a short-/long-arm setup in front, and leading and trailing arms in the rear-to be retuned to deliver greater ride comfort and impact absorption while still imparting a firm and precise handling feel while cornering.
Powering the new Explorer is a retuned version of the optional 4.6L/281ci V-8, which now uses the same three-valve cylinder head configuration used by the F-150 and Mustang GT. With the reengineered valvetrain, the new engine now generates 292 peak horsepower at 5,750 rpm, an increase of 53 hp over the previous 4.6. A 210hp 4.0L V-6 is still standard, and both engines are said to comply with Tier II, Bin 5 emissions standards, qualifying them for California LEV status.
Backing the 4.6 is an all-new 6R six-speed automatic transmission (the standard 4.0L gets a five-speed auto) and Borg-Warner 44-16 "Control Trac" transfer case with 2.48:1 low-range. Ring-and-pinion gearing is 3.55:1
The Explorer's interior has been completely reworked. While Ford officials swear there is no sharing of components between the SUV and the F-150, if you've spent any time in the pickup truck lately, you'll recognize the ergonomic and styling cues immediately, from the shifter to the gauges, to the front-seat armrests to the textured dash panels. This, to us, is a good thing. Ford pickups have long been the most comfortable and aesthetically pleasing vehicles in their segment, and the new Explorer is likewise a cushier-and quieter-ride than ever as a result. We especially liked the new touch-screen Nav system, which might be the most idiot-proof (read: editor-proof) version we've ever had the privilege to use.
We had the chance recently to spend a day behind the wheel of the new Explorer, decked out in top-line Eddie Bauer trim, carving twisty two-lanes and 'wheeling rutted forest roads in upstate New York. Without question, the new Ford is noticeably quieter, accelerates more briskly, and takes corners with greater acuity than the previous incarnation. The six-speed is seamless in normal operation, though we noted considerable torque-converter lag when manually downshifting or upshifting at higher rpm levels. Which is to say, the automatic likes to remain an automatic. Steering feel has been improved by variable-ratio rack-and-pinion, though we still thought it more responsive at higher road speeds. Off-pavement, we didn't subject the Explorer to any severe 'wheeling, but it seemed perfectly at home on loose dirt roads; the new chassis and suspension were much happier taking rockier trails at slower speeds. Keep an eye on these pages-we'll get ahold of a new Explorer for a comprehensive street and trail test in an upcoming issue.
Vehicle tested: 2006 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer
Base price: $30,845
Engine: 4.6L OHC V-8
Max rated hp/torque @ rpm (lb-ft): 292 @ 5,750/300 @ 3,950
Transmission: 6R six-speed automatic
Transfer case: B-W 44-16 part-time two-speed
Low range ratio: 2.48:1
Axle ratio: 3.55:1
Crawl ratio: 36.7:1
Suspension, f/r: Independent SLA, coilover shocks/Independent, leading and trailing arms, coilover shocks
Wheels: 17x7.5 aluminum
Wheelbase (in.): 113.7
Length (in.): 193.4
Base curb weight (lb.): 4,777
Minimum ground clearance (in.): 8.2
Approach/departure angles, f/r: 28.2/23.8
Max cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 83.7
Max towing capacity (lb.): 7,300
Fuel capacity (gal.): 22.5