If asked to define the newly redesigned '03 Expedition in only words, without hesitation we'd say stable, predictable. Now, don't take these two words lightly; they speak volumes when used in reference to a 5,671-pound SUV.
We'll admit that we approached our test of the reincarnated Expedition with very low expectations. When the Big Ex showed up at the Four Wheeler Midwest Bureau, we warily circled it like a pack of wolves circles a potential new addition to the pack. Our wariness centered mainly on the Expedition's new independent rear suspension (IRS), the only one of its kind in the fullsize segment.
The '03 Expedition actually sports a significant number of upgrades and improvements over the previous model, including a hydroformed frame that is approximately 70 percent stiffer in torsional rigidity, new variable-assist power rack-and-pinion steering, bigger brakes, a 1.7-inch-wider track and the segment's first fold-flat-into-the-floor third-row seat with power-folding capability.
The IRS system radically changes the handling of the Expedition for the better. The system is 110 pounds lighter than the solid axle it replaces, thereby having less unsprung weight than the previous five-link axle. This means that the Big Ex's springs have a much easier time when it comes to controlling suspension movement; so the suspension is more effectively able to isolate the passenger compartment from roadway irregularities. It uses specially designed bushings with asymmetric qualities that are indexed so they can only be assembled in the correct orientation. This assures that they remain firm in the areas that receive forces. Probably the most obvious benefit of the new rear suspension is its full 9 inches of wheel travel, which is remarkable for an OE IRS system. The downside to the Expedition's IRS is its ground clearance. Clearly this is the fly in the ointment for those who travel off-highway often, as special care must be paid to the rear lower control arms as they droop significantly lower than the rear differential.
A surprise spring snowstorm gave us the opportunity to test the Expedition off-highway in a variety of snow depths and over a number of obstacles. Our tester came equipped with the optional AdvanceTrac traction-control system, which is said to monitor driver intent, road surface conditions and slip at all four wheels to deliver torque exactly where it's needed. This $795 option is a great assistant for less-experienced bad-weather or off-highway drivers, but being taken out of control of the driving equation turned us off. The computer relieved us of most inputs except for steering when traction was lost. Big kudos to Ford, though, for installing a cancellation button on the console. With this button activated, complete vehicle control is restored to the driver on demand.
On-road, the Expedition exhibits manners that belie its more than 17-foot length. The 5.4L engine does a great job of pulling the vehicle's mass, and helps contribute to the Expedition's impressive 8,650-pound towing capacity. Fuel mileage is quite low, however; we could only coax an 11.5-mpg average from the powerplant.
The interior is comfortable and functional, and isolates passengers from most road noise. This is due to the fact that the vehicle contains the industry's largest application of lightweight structural foam. This foam is used in various places throughout the Expedition's body, and the result is a quiet, rattle-free cabin. We did think that the interior seemed overly plasticky, though, especially considering the Expedition's sticker price of more than $48,000. One final note about the interior: When we first heard about the power fold-flat-to-the-floor third row seat, we were unimpressed. After using it, however, we've become quite fond of its operational simplicity, and we wonder why no one thought of it previously.
Overall, the new Expedition is a vast improvement over its predecessor. Obviously, IRS is partly the reason for the Expedition's excellent ride and impressive handling. With it come good and bad, but overall Ford engineers did a good job of integrating it into the vehicle while retaining a degree of off-highway functionality. Clearly, the new Expedition isn't designed to crawl rocks, but for day-to-day transportation in a variety of weather conditions and an occasional jaunt over a sandy beach or an old mountain mining trail, the Expedition lives up to its name. By the time you read this, the '04 models will be arriving in showrooms. Look for very few changes to the vehicle except for trim and option packaging.
Vehicle/Model: '03 Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer 4x4
Base price: $41,315
Price as tested: $48,660
Options as tested: Second row captains chairs, Advance Trac, navigation radio, safety canopy with rollover sensors, 3rd row power folding seat, climate control seats, rear seat entertainment DVD
Type: SOHC V-8
Displacement (liters): 5.4
Bore x stroke (in.): 3.55 x 4.17
Compression ratio: 9.0:1
Fuel system: Sequential multiport fuel injection
Mfg's power rating (hp) @ rpm: 260 @ 4,500
Mfg's torque rating (lb-ft) @ rpm: 350 @ 2,500
Mfg's suggested fuel type: Regular unleaded
Transmission: 4R70W Four-speed automatic
Axle ratio: 3.73:1
Transfer case (mfg/type): 2-speed w/Control Trac
Low range ratio: 2.62:1
Crawl ratio: 27.7:1
Frame & Body
Frame: Boxed, hydroformed
Front: Double wishbone (SLA) coilover-shock, gas-filled shocks
Rear: Independent double wishbone (SLA), coilover shock, gas-filled shocks
Type: Power rack-and-pinion
Turning radius (ft.): 38.7
Front: 13.0-inch vented discs, ABS
Rear: 13.5-inch vented discs, ABS
Wheels (in.): 17 x 8-inch
Tires: P265/70R17 all-terrain
EPA city/highway (mpg): 13/17
Actual combined City/highway/trail (mpg): 11.0
Dimensions and Capacities
Weight (lb.): 5,671
Wheelbase (in.): 119.0
Overall length (in.): 205.8
Overall width (in.): 78.7
Height (in.): 77.6
Track f/r (in.): 67.0/67.3
Minimum ground clearance (in.): 8.9
Approach/departure angles (in.): 22.2/19.2
GVWR (lbs.): 7,300
Payload (lb.): 1,769
Maximum towing capacity (lbs.) 8,650
Check It Out If:
You're looking for a vehicle that's the equivalent of a pack mule.
Avoid It If:
You hope to throw on a suspension lift in a couple of hours and hit the Rubicon.