It wasn't all that long ago when the basic definitions of a sport utility vehicle and a pickup truck were vastly different. Oh, sure - Many of today's SUVs are based on truck platforms, and most of those share some parts and even styling with their pickup brethren. But this year -- thanks to new offerings such as Ford's 2001 Explorer Sport Trac -- never before have the lines between SUV and pickup been so blurry.
As far as Ford is concerned, its vision for the new Sport Trac is perfectly clear. Company officials call it the first sport utility vehicle with an open cargo area for added hauling flexibility. So just how, you ask, can Ford claim to be the first in this truck/SUV segment -- when both Nissan and Dodge got their four-door trucks on the market before Ford?
Simple: The 2001 Ford Explorer Sport Trac isn't a pickup with an SUV-sized interior; it's an SUV with a small pickup bed. That may sound like a matter of semantics, but it's actually an important distinction. Ford built it as an SUV that can act like a pickup, not a pickup that tries to act like an SUV -- so the higher-quality interior, quieter cabin and smoother ride that SUVs enjoy over sister trucks are already part of the deal.
The Sport Trac is based off the Explorer SUV and not the Ranger compact truck. Yes, it's true that Explorer and Ranger share a basic platform, but the more robust underpinnings of the bigger and heavier Explorer SUV was the starting point for the Sport Trac. The 2000 Frontier Crew Cab and 2000 Dakota Quad Cab, on the other hand, are still pickups - albeit fitted with bigger cabs and smaller cargo beds. Ford sees that as giving the Sport Trac a competitive advantage over Nissan and Dodge, even though building off a sport-utility instead of a pickup truck carries some initial cost penalties.
"The new Ford Explorer Sport Trac is a sport utility vehicle for people who live the SUV lifestyle," explained Ford Division president Jim O'Connor. "They like the comfort and interior space of an SUV, but there are days they wish they had more cargo room to haul a muddy mountain bike or to pick up a load of topsoil for the yard. But these people would never own a pickup truck -- they just don't need one. Sport Trac is the perfect answer to balance the needs of these customers."
Ford apparently didn't think there would be much interest in this new truck from the millions of people (like you) who use the Internet to research new vehicle purchases. The company's product launch manager (an ex-buff-book editor) must have been leaning more to the old-fashioned print media when it came to invitations to the Sport Trac's press introduction. But thanks to some savvy insiders, we were able to borrow a pre-production unit to log some real-world seat time in a loaded-up 4x4 model.
After a week behind the wheel in Detroit, we can tell you that the single, most-often heard response we encountered when out-and-about in the Sport Trac was: "I want one!"
It's likely that people who don't understand the need for a vehicle that offers the load versatility of a pickup bed with the people-hauling ability of a four-door SUV are folks who have never juggled pickup truck ownership with the needs of a growing family. For those of you who have, you'll be pleased to know that this vehicle offers many surprises. It also offers several features that Ford claims as innovative "firsts":
It's the first vehicle to be built with a fully composite cargo area.
It's the first truck or SUV to offer a factory power up-down back window.
It's the first vehicle to offer a factory cargo cage that increases cargo area length.
It's also the first to offer a lockable, hard tonneau from the factory.
First in segment to include a weatherproof 12-volt powerpoint in the open cargo area.
And it's the first with a standard center console that includes a removable soft-pack.
More importantly, we think the Explorer Sport Trac is also the first of these so-called SUV/pickup truck "hybrids" to deliver a styling theme with its own, unique look rather than merely adding doors to a small truck. And in the SUV market, image counts.
The Sport Trac uses what Ford calls a "power-dome" hood that is shared with the new Explorer Sport and next-generation Ranger. Up front, a pewter-colored honeycomb grille is flanked by bold, vertical air intakes, much like on the Super Duty trucks. And the upper portion of the front bumper is color-keyed to the sheet metal, with the lower portion of the fascia molded in a steel-gray accent color. Integrated fog lamps are optional, while a pair of black tow hooks are standard on the 4x4 and can be ordered for the 4x2 version. Flared front fenders add to the overall athletic theme.
Aggressive-looking black roof rails are standard on Sport Trac and, when fitted with optional cross bars (available through Ford dealerships), the rack has a load capacity of 100 pounds. Also available as a factory-installed option are step bars that run the length of the cab for easier entry/exit to the cabin.
Out back is an industry-first - the all-composite cargo box. Made of Sheet Molded Composite (SMC) plastic, the box is lightweight (20-percent lighter than steel), impact-resistant and will never rust. Its 29.6 cubic feet of cargo space means you can haul a ton of groceries (made goof-proof by use of an available plastic cargo-area divider) or luggage for the whole family (but opt for the lockable two-piece hard tonneau cover).
You can also make easy work of about six sets of golf clubs or a few mountain bikes - and for more space just drop the tailgate down and lock the available stainless-steel cargo cage into place. (The cage adds 22.6 inches of added cargo room beyond the 50-inch cargo bed.) The Sport Trac can even carry the obligatory 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood.
Located in the open rear cargo area is a 12-volt power point that allows customers to run such items as power tools, refrigerators or stereos from the rear of the vehicle - which makes the Sport Trac more user-friendly for camping and other outdoor activities. And there are no less than 10 cargo hooks -- six on the outside rail and four on the inside of the cargo area -- that can be employed to keep goods in place.
Inside, comfortable seating for up to five adults comes covered in easy-to-clean twill fabric or optional leather. Instead of carpeting, textured composite rubber covers the floors, topped off with Berber carpet floor mats with embossed Sport Trac logos. White-faced gauges and titanium accents dress up the freshened instrument panel, and the center console features a removable soft pack that doubles as a sport-bag.
An AM/FM stereo and single-CD player with four premium speakers is standard equipment, while an 80-watt AM/FM unit with six-disc, in-dash CD player is available as an option. Our test mule was equipped with the Leather Comfort Group ($1,495), which includes six-way power leather buckets with driver's lumbar, and a rear-seat console with independent climate/audio controls, two headphone jacks and two cupholders.
Behind the 60/40 rear seats are two hidden bins; the one on the passenger side holds the jack, while the driver-side bin can hold tools or any other small items that you might need to be kept out of view. And both seatbacks can be folded flat should additional cargo space be needed instead of the extra seating capacity.
Beyond nifty looks and features, perhaps the most surprising (and seldom discussed) aspect of the new Explorer Sport Trac is its ride and handling - vastly improved from any Explorer model we've driven.
The secret is a longer wheelbase and a stiffer frame. Explorer Sport Trac is based on the four-door Explorer frame, only lengthened 14.25 inches for a wheelbase of 125.9 inches. To compensate for the extra length, engineers added thicker side rails, new gussets on all longitudinal beams and a new tubular crossmember to beef up overall rigidity.
The end result is a frame that has 40 percent more lateral stiffness, meaning tighter, more responsive handling. Ride is smoother and firmer, and steering feels more direct and connected than ever before - one of our biggest gripes with Explorer 4x4's. And by replacing the rubber body mounts with new urethane mounts, engine vibration and road harshness are better isolated from the cabin, meaning a quieter environment inside.
Front suspension is still an independent short- and long-arm affair with a torsion bar, and two-stage variable rate leaf springs control the rear axle - but you'll have to wait for the next-generation Explorer to get the independent rear suspension system. The good news is that the Sport Trac's suspension has been retuned for more control and a surprising amount of road feel.
Brakes have been beefed up, too. The front rotors are now 12-inch units, and big, 11-inch drums are used in back. ABS is standard. Fifteen-inch P235/75 all-season Firestones are standard on the 4x2, and P235/75-15 all-terrain tires come on the 4x4. Our Sport Trac wore the optional P255/70R rubber on 16-inch cast-aluminum five-spoke wheels as part of the premium Sport Group, which added the fog lamps, tow hooks and side step bars.
Towing capacity tops the needed 5,000-pound mark on both 4x2 and 4x4 models, and hauling-happy buyers can opt for a payload package to push payload to 1,500 pounds. Power comes from Ford's SOHC 4.0-liter V6, which makes 205 horses and 240 foot-pounds of torque. While we'd prefer a small V8, the 4.0 moves the 4400-pound Sport Trac around quite nicely. For now, an electronically controlled five-speed automatic is the only transmission, but a five-speed manual box should be available by spring. Four-wheel-drive models feature a shift-on-the-fly transfer case and automatic locking hubs.
Built alongside the four-door Explorer and the new 2001 Explorer Sport at Ford's Louisville, Ky., assembly plant, the Sport Trac carries a base price of $23,050 for the 4x2 and $25,820 for the 4x4. Our optioned-out test unit stickered at a whopping $29,120 - a big chunk of change in anybody's book. But with this truck's styling, versatility and features, we think Ford will find quite a few takers even at that price.
There are folks who like the comfort, safety and image of SUVs but desire something a little sportier. And if their needs occasionally include hauling dirty stuff such as wood, gardening supplies, shrubs or fishing gear, but a small pickup just won't carry the gang in style, the Sport Trac may be just the ticket. If hauling and doing work is your primary concern and interior comfort and ride come second, then go for a crew cab truck.
Ford admits that the idea behind the 2001 Explorer Sport Trac traces back to the Adrenalin concept truck that was introduced in 1996, so this idea isn't a new one. Company officials say that due to the overwhelmingly positive reaction to that show truck, the decision was made to bring a production version to market. And with Sport Trac now in the lineup, Ford truck buyers have an even greater chance of choosing a vehicle that best fits their lifestyle.
We just wonder why - in today's truck-crazed marketplace - it took Ford nearly four years to put an image-leading product like Sport Trac on the road. After all, sales leadership comes from striking when the iron is hot. Ford can only hope that the iron stays hot enough to make the Sport Trac a clear-cut sales success.
Specifications and Performance