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by Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
A few months back, in one of our inexplicable drives to create more work for ourselves, we tossed around the idea of comparing the latest full-size sport-utilities, namely the Ford Expedition, the Chevrolet Tahoe and the Toyota Sequoia. The problem was, as good as it looked on paper, our previous experience with the vehicles led to one obvious conclusion: We were looking at a two-horse race.
As comparable as the Expedition was in terms of size, price and features, its sloppy suspension, vague steering and lackluster engine were sure to leave it trailing in the dust of the more powerful Tahoe and ultra-smooth Sequoia. In order to compete, the Expedition needed help. Thankfully, no one knew this more than Ford.
The relatively unchanged look of the 2003 Expedition hides the fact that nearly everything underneath is new. Significant enhancements to the frame, suspension, steering and brakes elevate the Expedition's driving dynamics to 21st-century standards, while numerous refinements and innovations in the cabin result in a more attractive and functional overall package. We'll reserve final judgment until we complete a full road test, but our introductory drive left us with the impression that the Expedition is now well equipped to compete favorably with anything in its class.
Addressing the previous version's wobbly ride meant more than just adding stiffer springs and retuning the shocks a little. In this case, Ford used an all-new frame that's significantly stiffer than before along with a fully independent suspension to give the Expedition much improved handling dynamics. We pushed the hulking sport-ute harder than most drivers would ever care to and found it to be extremely stable during hard cornering. The stiffer structure doesn't translate into a harsh ride, however, as the Expedition smothers potholes and road hazards with little intrusion into the cabin. In fact, between the tighter overall feel and the quieter cabin, the Expedition conveys a sense of refinement rivaled only by Toyota's Sequoia.
An all-new rack-and-pinion steering system replaces what was one of the numbest, most detached setups we've ever driven, so to declare that it's a major improvement almost goes without saying. Variable power assistance gives the truck solid road feel at all speeds and a shorter turning radius helps with maneuverability in tight spaces.
Larger, more capable brakes enhanced with an electronic Brake Assist feature are another welcome improvement for '03. Brake Assist senses a panic stop and helps apply full pressure more quickly for shorter stopping distances. Head-up driving kept us from having to invoke this important safety feature, but we did give the new binders a thorough workout while descending a steep mountain grade. Fade was minimal, pedal feel was much improved and except for one extremely steep section that required full effort, there was always plenty of power in reserve.
Unfortunately, we can't bestow similar praise on the powertrain, as the Expedition carries over both the 4.6- and 5.4-liter V8 engines from last year's models. Both powerplants received numerous enhancements geared toward quieter operation and more usable torque, but from our seat-of-the-pants perspective, the Expedition still lacks the punch of GM's V8s and the refinement of Toyota's iForce eight-cylinder. The maximum tow rating on 5.4-liter-equipped Expeditions has increased to a class-leading 8,900 pounds, but considering how easily it runs out of breath with just two people aboard, we wouldn't characterize the Expedition as our first choice for a tow vehicle.
Both two- and four-wheel-drive versions will still be available, with the latter getting a revised version of Ford's Control Trac four-wheel-drive system as standard equipment. In response to customer demand, this system now offers a two-wheel-drive mode that completely disconnects the front wheels at the hubs for better mileage and less driveline wear. For serious offroad duty, a new FX4 option package adds underbody skid plates, specially tuned shocks, steel wheels, a limited-slip rear axle and all-terrain tires.
Another new feature that's optional on top-of-the-line Eddie Bauer models and FX4-equipped XLTs is the AdvanceTrac stability and traction control system. Functioning as a type of electronic differential, the AdvanceTrac uses electronic braking to actively distribute power where it's needed most. We sampled the system on both a muddy forest trail and a snow-covered mountain road and found that it provided exceptional traction without feeling overly intrusive. The AdvanceTrac system also helps to maintain vehicle stability on perfectly paved surfaces, again using the brakes to help restore stability should the vehicle lose control during an abrupt maneuver.
Although much of the Expedition's overhaul took place under the skin, a revamped interior that adds numerous class-exclusive features gives the Expedition a fresh new look and improved family-friendliness.
The design team's intense focus on proper ergonomics resulted in a no-nonsense layout that places nearly every control within easy reach of the driver. The two-tone color scheme looks great in the decked-out Eddie Bauer models, but the lower level XLT trim can look a bit dour draped in multiple shades of gray. Most of the interior materials look and feel good, but a few of the door panels still look cheap compared to the Sequoia. If you've ever ridden in Audi's TT coupe, you'll instantly recognize the Expedition's identical vent design, a good steal in our minds, since they're as functional as they are good looking.
Interior space up front remains largely the same, although a redesigned center console and larger door pockets provide more storage than before. The Expedition remains the only full-size SUV to offer adjustable pedals that help drivers of all sizes maintain a comfortable and safe driving position. A CD-based navigation system is a new option for 2003, another first in its class. The screen is placed high in the dash for easy viewing, and we found the controls simple to use, but we're a little disappointed that Ford didn't opt for a more advanced DVD-based system, as those systems typically provide more detailed maps and only require a single disc to cover the entire country.
Second-row accommodations remain spacious, with plenty of room for three adults to ride comfortably. Buyers can also opt for captain's chairs in the second row that drops seating capacity to seven, but affords more room in the middle row and easier access to the rearmost seats. The Expedition's new independent rear suspension not only provides a much smoother ride, it also makes way for more room in the third row. Ford claims best-in-class leg- and hiproom, and, after a quick stint on the 60/40-split bench, we would have to agree that it's one of the more comfortable third-row seats available. The Expedition also offers best-in-class cargo space thanks to second- and third-row seats that fold completely flat, another one of the Expedition's exclusive new features.
More innovations come in the way of the optional Safety Canopy side-curtain airbag system that not only provides protection in the event of a side-impact collision, it also includes a segment-exclusive rollover protection system. If the vehicle's sensors detect an imminent rollover, the airbag curtain will remain inflated for up to 6 seconds to help protect passengers who may get thrown about the cabin. Ford's Personal Safety System provides frontal impact protection for the driver and front passenger through the use of dual-stage airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners and seat-track sensors that match airbag deployment to driver size and crash severity.
The list of improvements goes on and on, but by now you probably get the picture. Ford claims that the Expedition is better in every way, and our initial test drive seemed to verify the company's assertions. It's not going to knock your socks off with its power, but it will certainly coddle you and your family with its refined ride, quiet interior and numerous features. Add in the advanced safety equipment, best-in-class passenger space and extremely capable four-wheel-drive system and the Expedition makes a strong case for itself as the best full-size sport-ute on the market.
Looks like we had better put that plan for a comparison test back on the schedule, 'cause that two-horse runaway now looks more like a three-horse photo finish -- just the way we like it.
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