Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Introduced in 1997, the Ford Expedition has come a long way in terms of refinement and civility. While the Expedition was one of only a few choices in full-size SUVs for the 1997 model year, subsequent years have brought a flurry of new and competent choices -- so the competition in this segment is fierce.
For 2003 Ford has redesigned the Expedition and included a host of new features and industry firsts in a full-size SUV. Exterior styling remains largely unchanged; the real improvements are inside and underneath the big truck.
Inside, Ford has borrowed a page from minivans, such as the Honda Odyssey, as the Expedition offers the first fold-flat rear seat in a full-size SUV. Not only do the split-folding rear seats make a flat cargo floor, they can be ordered with a power-folding option, another industry first. Combined with second-row seats that also fold flat, the Expedition's power rear seats offer versatility and convenience any owner could grow to love. A minor complaint is that the switches must be held down for as long as it takes the seats to raise or fold -- a one-touch feature would make the process that much easier. Adding further flexibility, the third-row seats are arranged in a 60/40-split, while the second-row seats can fold down in three separate sections, or a roughly 40/20/40-split. We found this to be especially useful when hauling more than two people and odd-shaped cargo, such as golf clubs, baby strollers or skis. Fold down all the seats and the flat floor, combined with a high roof, gives the Ford Expedition a vanlike ability to devour lots of cargo.
Up front, the Expedition has a much higher-quality feel than Ford SUVs we've previously tested. Granted this example was a luxurious Eddie Bauer model, but it still felt warmer than Ford trucks of past years that, too often, seemed like work trucks with a bunch of fancy stuff thrown in. With the possible exception of the climate control knobs, the buttons and switches lack the plasticky sensation typical of some Ford products. Most surfaces, including the switchgear, feel rugged without being rough. Metal trim rings surround the dash vents and the aluminum accents add a modern flair to an otherwise plain dash.
While the look of the dash is much better, the way it is arranged could use some improvement. At first, we found everything where it should be, but with extended use and a variety of drivers, the ergonomics were a little worse than average with regard to the audio-navigation system. The navigation system/audio control screen is well placed but difficult to operate from the driver seat. A "menu" button on the nav system is angled away from the driver and does not light up at night. If the "menu" button is the key to accessing all other functions, it needs to be visible in all conditions. A toggle-type knob is used to navigate through the audio system functions, and it is quite a reach for the driver. Also, the buttons for the driver information display are completely blocked by the shift lever when the truck is in "Drive." Redundant steering wheel-mounted controls help somewhat, but overall, the dashboard ergonomics need some work.
The navigation system itself could use some work as well. The LCD screen is simply too small, and the maps "redraw" at odd times. Another problem is the fact that the navigation system is not DVD-based, but rather uses multiple CD-ROMs to cover the country. On the plus side, the system offers a few externally mounted buttons that allow quick access to the map in relation to your destination. A small "map" button instantly changes the screen to show the vehicle's current position. Two other buttons marked "Here" and "Home" quickly show the vehicle's position in relation to a programmed destination -- it's especially helpful if you get completely lost.
The interior has a very spacious, open feel. The 2003 Ford Expedition is 1.7 inches wider than last year's model, and the extra hiproom is noticeable. The center console storage bin is very accommodating and will easily swallow sunglasses, a cell phone, CD cases, a wallet or two and other everyday bits and pieces the modern world has saddled us with.
The front seats are firm but comfortable. The power adjustments are smooth and efficient, but the lumbar and seat back adjustments should be power as well considering this is the luxurious Eddie Bauer edition that costs nearly $45,000. The rear seats are roomy, comfortable and can also be reclined manually. Legroom is still more than adequate for backseat passengers.
While the interior is a comfortable place to spend time and offers thoughtful and flexible seating-cargo arrangements, none of it would matter if the Expedition didn't deliver a certain amount of civility on the road.
Ford claims the 2003 Expedition has a frame that is 70-percent stiffer than last year's model thanks to more rigid frame rails. However, a rigid frame alone is not enough to deliver carlike ride and handling, so Ford has given the Expedition a fully independent rear suspension with a double-wishbone setup similar to that found on many passenger cars.
All this technology may be of little interest to the average SUV shopper, but it's hard to argue with the results. This Expedition delivers an almost carlike ride that rivals the Chevrolet Tahoe and Toyota Sequoia. Rough or uneven pavement is little cause for concern as virtually none of the unpleasantness makes its way into the cabin. Handling is also improved, as the Expedition showed significantly reduced body roll and felt more nimble than its collective girth might suggest. The newfound refinement is noticeable at highway speeds as well -- the cabin remains quiet for the most part, even at speeds of 70 mph and higher. There is some wind noise, but road and engine noise are muted.
Acceleration is certainly not brisk, but adequate considering this truck's size. We recorded a 0-to-60 mph time of 8.8 seconds. With the lack of noticeable brute strength under the hood, we can't help but wonder how the Expedition would fare towing a trailer while loaded with family vacation garb. Although there is a 232-horsepower, 4.6-liter V8 available, it's the 260-hp, 5.4-liter Triton V8 that will offer most drivers plenty of power. Ford claims to have specially tuned the Triton motor to deliver a "performance" sound while accelerating and a quieter tone for normal driving or open-highway cruising -- it's not just PR hype, the engine really does deliver on this promise. The 5.4 has numerous enhancements to make it a much more well-rounded motor, but it still falls a little short of Toyota's wonderful i-Force V8 in terms of refinement.
Braking is also improved with larger rotors and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. We were able to get the Expedition to a dead stop from 60 mph in 135 feet, but more than one driver complained of an initial vagueness in the pedal.
In addition to performance enhancements, the Expedition incorporates many safety features as well. New for 2003 is a Safety Canopy system that increases protection during side-impact accidents and vehicle rollover. The optional Safety Canopy system uses separate sensors to adjust airbag deployment according to each situation. In a rollover, the airbags can stay fully inflated for up to six seconds to enhance protection for first- and second-row passengers. There is also a Personal Safety System that includes sensors for front seat position, crash severity and safety belt usage to insure that the airbags deploy at exactly the right time and intensity. Accident avoidance features include BrakeAssist, which can help to reduce braking distances in panic-stop situations, and the AdvanceTrac stability control system.
In theory, the new Ford Expedition incorporates many changes that, when viewed individually, seem minor or evolutionary at best. In practice, the new Expedition is revolutionary in virtually every way except exterior appearance. A smoother ride, more predictable handling as well as a more comfortable and versatile cabin put the Expedition on par with other full-size SUVs for the first time in years. The old model was easy to dismiss, but anyone shopping for a full-size SUV would be wise to add the 2003 Ford Expedition to their list.
System Score: 8.0
Components: We've been watching with a somewhat bemused expression on our faces the last few years as Ford has flip-flopped back and forth with its stereo efforts. A few years ago, the Detroit-based manufacturer offered, hands down, the best SUV stereos on the planet. But since then, the offerings have gotten leaner and leaner. Whereas previously Ford's SUVs offered large subwoofers and bounteous speaker placements, more recent models have appeared anemic by comparison. The 2003 Ford Expedition, while not bridging the gap completely, represents a partial return to former glory, with a system that is both attractive and good-sounding.
The system begins with a nicely appointed head unit. Most of the system's functions, such as tone settings, balance-fade, etc., are fed through a dash-mounted LCD screen. This is the nontouch variety of screen, unlike the kind used in Lexus and other vehicles, and it is a bit of a welcome change, since you get a positive tactile response from the controls versus a touchscreen, which sometimes comes across with a "flat" feeling. The function controls are well spaced and exceptionally easy to use, and they are augmented by steering wheel controls for volume, mode and seek-scan. The system does not offer a cassette player. A six-disc CD changer resides beneath the center armrest, which is not as handy as the in-dash units found in many competing models.
Speaker placements include 5-by-7 full-range drivers in all four doors, plus an 8-inch subwoofer in the rear-quarter panel. There are no separately mounted tweeters in the system.
Performance: Because of the minimal speaker placements in the 2003 Ford Expedition, it doesn't sound as good as it might. For instance, without separate tweeters mounted high in the door, on the dash or in the A-pillars, this vehicle cannot compete in soundstage or stereo imaging with others in the segment. It simply lacks the speaker placements to accomplish this. That being said, it's a decent-sounding system. It plays plenty loud, with just a slight graininess at full gain, and the subwoofer gives some nicely added kick. High frequencies exhibit a bit of snake hiss, but other than this the sound is fairly balanced. All in all, we weren't knocked out by the sound of the Expedition, but it is competitive in its class.
Best Feature: Excellent ergonomics.
Worst Feature: Poor speaker placements.
Conclusion: Ford is one manufacturer that would benefit from some outside expertise in the stereo realm. Why the company has not called in Bose or Harman International to design a system is a mystery to us. It most likely comes down to profitability (doesn't everything?). As it is, Ford is no longer a leader in the segment in stereos, but it is still competitive. If you like good music while you travel, you won't be blown away by this system, but you will be entertained. -- Scott Memmer
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The SUV (even in the face of growing opposition) continues to improve. That Ford can produce a full-size SUV with responsive steering, well-controlled body sway and room to carry six adults comfortably is rather amazing. Actually, the Eddie Bauer version goes way beyond "comfort." Goodies like a DVD entertainment system and climate-controlled seating place this Expedition comfortably inside the luxury vehicle realm.
However, combining audio and navigation controls into a single screen is never a good idea, and Ford's system proves this yet again. I first drove this vehicle at night and could not find a way to adjust the bass or treble. It was only in the light of day that the nonlit "menu" button could be seen. And even after finding this I still had to scroll through another screen, and then use the tiny joystick control, to adjust tonal qualities. A large round knob that you push to scroll through the audio controls, while twisting to adjust them, will always be more efficient than this setup.
And while I appreciated the Expedition's ability to turn corners, I thought its power was merely adequate. It's not easy to move this kind of tonnage around quickly -- and maybe it shouldn't be -- but prospective buyers should know that merging with freeway traffic will take some advance planning. If you can possibly get by with a smaller vehicle, such as an Explorer, which also has a fully functional third-row seat, you'll likely prefer the fuel mileage and overall driving experience.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
It is never without some regret that I recommend a large SUV. As appealing as some of them, like the Expedition, have become, no auto manufacturer has resolved the fuel economy problem yet. So you're left with an incredibly roomy and maneuverable family vehicle that struggles to get 15 mpg. Can you deal with that? If so, you'll like the Expedition.
As with the Lincoln Navigator, the Expedition's ride and handling characteristics are astounding for a truck-based vehicle of this size. One could argue that Toyota has been able to achieve this with the Sequoia without giving up the off-road-friendly solid rear axle, but the Expedition has never been marketed to buyers in need of serious all-terrain capability anyway. Really, our 4x2 test vehicle reminded me of the Ford Focus: Its behavior was so easy to predict, even on curvy two-lanes -- where it quickly settled into turns, allowing the tires to take a firm hold on the pavement. Also contributing to its confidence was the steering, which offers surprisingly progressive weighting, even compared to some cars.
Inside, the Expedition offers the most comfortable seating for seven people -- short of a minivan. No other SUV on the market (except the Navigator) offers such generous third-row accommodations. Overall, the cabin design is attractive, though the center stack controls have too many small buttons and the joystick-operated CD-based navigation system seems like a waste of money. With just one person aboard during my test-drive, the Triton V8 felt taxed only on uphill grades, but add more human cargo and a trailer, and you're apt to miss the punch of GM's V8s.
Overall, the Expedition is quite capable and I enjoyed driving it, but I still think a minivan is the more ergonomically and financially sound choice for most families.
"I was floored to note the quality that Ford has put into the 2003 Expedition. Quiet, fast and built for a large group. I don't think you could ask for more. Gas consumption is a different matter as it's getting just under 18 mpg on the open highway, but the old saying is, you get what you pay for. As for me, I paid a fair price and got a better-than-normal product." -- Curtiss, July 29, 2002
"Although I can average 17.8 mpg with the 4.6L (averaged 15.6 mpg with the previous 2000 5.4L Expedition), the engine needs more power. The new suspension and frame produce a jittery ride on uneven pavement, and annoying squeaks and rattles can be heard in the cabin. Love the climate-controlled seats and the power-folding third row. The rear-seat DVD player is a great feature for long trips. Redesigned steering is responsive and larger brakes with BrakeAssist bring the vehicle to a secure stop." -- Jsoko1, Sept. 10, 2002
"Moving to the larger vehicle wasn't as difficult as my wife and I expected. With seven years' experience driving a minivan, she had no problems driving the Expedition around town or parking. The kids have plenty of room and the fold-away backseat makes it easy to get groceries. During our Christmas trip to Michigan from Norfolk, Va., we were caught in a blinding snowstorm. The 2WD Expedition helped us feel secure and handled the extreme weather conditions very well. One thing I would maybe do over, 'Get the larger engine.' The 4.6-liter seems a bit weak at times. This may only seem a problem because I drive a 1986 F-250 351W most of the time." -- Rdgolden, Dec. 26, 2002
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