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2006 Ford Explorer Review - First Drive

Posted in Project Vehicles on December 1, 2005 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Since its introduction in 1990, the Ford Explorer has been one of the most ubiquitous 4x4s in America. According to Ford, more than 511/42 million Explorers have been sold to date, and given its combination of utility and road manners at a competitive price,it's no surprise 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 probably time for a refreshening of Ford's flagship sport-ute, which last saw a major redesign in 2002. But Ford decided to go one better for the 2006 model year, reengineering the Explorer from the frame up, and the new-for-'06 Explorer boasts an all-new chassis, suspension, transmission, interior trim, and exterior sheetmetal.

The Explorer's new 4.6L V-8 borrows valvetrain technology from the F-150 and Mustang GT engines to squeeze nearly 300 horses out of 281 cubic inches. With variable cam timing and three valves per cylinder, it now generates 292 peak hp at 5,750, more than 50 over the previous version.

Powering the new Explorer is a retuned version of the optional 4.6L/281ci V-8, which now uses the same variable cam timing and three-valve cylinder head configuration found in the F-150 pickup and Mustang GT. With the reengineered valvetrain, the new engine now generates 292 peak hp at 5,750 rpm, an increase of 53 hp over the previous version of the 4.6. A 210hp 4.0L V-6 is still the standard powerplant.

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. Suspension remains independent at both ends: a short/long-arm setup in front, and a new, stronger leading/trailing arm arrangement in the rear to handle increased payload and tow ratings. Monotube shocks replace the old twin-tubes to better work with the Explorer's all-new (and substantially stiffer) frame. Axle gearing is 3.55:1, and as with the previous Explorer (alas), there are no locker or limited-slip diff options available.

Look familiar? Ford assured us there is no commonality of parts between the new Explorer and the F-150, but the SUV's new interior is the spittin' image of the pickup truck. There's plenty of legroom for 6-foot testers, and the onboard GPS was possibly the easiest system we've ever encountered on a factory four-by.

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. The new Explorer is likewise a cushier-and quieter-ride than ever as a result.

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 the New York Adirondacks. 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 virtually transparent in normal operation, though we noted considerable converter clutch lock-up lag when attempting to downshift or upshift at higher engine rpm. Steering feel has been improved by variable-ratio rack-and-pinion, though we still thought it a tad sluggish at slower road speeds. Off-highway, we didn't put the Explorer through any severe-duty wheeling, but it seemed perfectly at home on loose dirt roads; the new rigid chassis and stiffer suspension seemed to be much happier taking rockier trails at slower speeds, though.

Well, dirt forest roads are one thing, but how well can you wheel the new Explorer over really tough terrain? We'll answer that question when we subject one to our weeklong off-road torture test in our 2006 4x4 of the Year competition, coming in the Feb. '06 issue.

SPECIFICATIONS
2006 FORD EXPLORER EDDIE BAUER
Base Price $30,845
ENGINE
Type {{{90}}}-degree OHC V-8
Displacement (liters) 4.6L
Compression Ratio 9.8:1
Mfg.'s Horsepower 292 @ 5,750 rpm
Mfg.'s Torque (lb-ft) {{{300}}} @ 3,950 rpm
DRIVETRAIN
Trans 6R six-speed automatic
Axle Ratio 3.55:1
Transfer Case B-W 44-16
part-time two-speed
Low-range Ratio 2.48:1
Crawl Ratio 36.7:1
SUSPENSION
Front SLA, independent with
coilover shocks
Rear Trailing arm with
coilover shocks
WHEELS/TIRES
Wheel Size 17x7.5 aluminum
Tires P245/65R17
DIMENSIONS/CAPACITIES
Base Curb Weight (lbs) 4,777
Wheelbase (in) 113.7
Overall Length (in) 193.4
Min. Ground Clearance (in) 8.2
Max. Cargo Volume (cu ft) 83.7
Approach/departure Angles (deg) 28.2/23.8
Max. Towing Capacity (lbs) 7,300
Fuel Capacity (gal) 22.5
Seating (persons) 7

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