What's New for 1996
For the 1996 Ford Explorer, the long-awaited V8 AWD versions are available in XLT, Eddie Bauer or Limited Edition flavors. An integrated child safety seat is optional, and the Expedition model has been replaced by a Premium trim package for the Sport.
Since its introduction in 1991, the Ford Explorer has resided at the top of the sport-utility sales heap. With good reason; the Explorer combined style, comfort and room is one go-anywhere package. The modern day Country Squire, some have called it, after the segment leading station wagon of the 1950s.
Last year, Ford gave its golden child a makeover, including a new suspension, revised four-wheel drive system and dual airbags in the restyle. Four-wheel antilock brakes made the list of standard equipment in 1995 as well. What didn't make the cut was a more powerful powerplant, to do battle with the V8 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 200-horsepower V6 found in the Chevy Blazer and GMC Jimmy.
This year, Ford squeezes a 5.0-liter V8 into the engine bay of the Explorer, available in two-wheel or all-wheel drive models. Putting out 210 horsepower, the engine option includes a limited-slip differential. A long time in coming, the existence of the V8 will ensure the Explorer's position on the sales charts for years to come.
Simply stated, the Explorer is a more refined vehicle than the competition at Jeep and General Motors. The interior goes quite a ways in instilling a quality feel that is missing from the Grand Cherokee and the Blazer. An organically sweeping dashboard houses radio controls that can actually be operated without a magnifying glass. Materials feel and look rich. Rear seat comfort surpasses Chevy, and entry/exit is easier than Jeep. Explorers offer more cargo capacity than most rivals. Exterior styling is a subjective matter; we think the fender skirts on the Eddie Bauer make the Explorer look pudgy. Chrome wheels, standard on the Eddie Bauer, ought to be a treat to clean for drivers in the rust belt.
The Explorer's standard 4.0-liter V6 is the puniest engine in a domestic sport-ute. Acceleration is fine from a standstill, but step on the gas at 50 mph and not much happens. That's not good news when there's a need to pass or merge. We recommend the V8 unless your travels are limited to around-town taxi duty.
Other changes for 1996 include a revised Eddie Bauer accent color, the deletion of the standard cargo net, and the addition to the options list of an integrated child safety seat. The two-door Expedition model, which looked to us like the automotive equivalent of George Foreman after a bout with several McDonald's Big Macs, has been axed in favor of a Premium Sport Package. Let's hope the meaty fender flares went away with the Expedition moniker. Luxury-oriented Limited models get 15-inch alloy wheels and an exclusive paint color.
Unlike the reworked Chevy Blazer, Explorers retain a distinctly truck-like character, which could be either a bonus or a demerit. They're tough and solid, and easy to maneuver--though steering is a little slow and ponderous, and the body leans through tight corners. Braking is excellent, and the suspension has a compliant attitude, but Ford's sportster can bounce around, and even grow woozy over uneven surfaces.
Jeep's Grand Cherokee is more sporting in flavor and feel, while the Chevy Blazer offers excellent value. Ford's Explorer straddles the middle ground in between, providing most of what people want most of the time. Guess that's what makes it so popular.