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Let's begin with history. The U.S. automotive landscape of 1990 was a far different one than it is today. Volvo and Saab were still fiercely independent and scrappy. Chrysler executives didn't answer to guys named Gunther and Dieter. Oldsmobile, while clearly on life support, was showing signs that it might pull through. And that same year, sales of SUVs accounted for a mere 6.6 percent of the vehicle population.
Granted, a few visionaries predicted a lot of what was to come, but who in 1990 would have predicted that performance icons like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche would ever build anything even resembling a truck? It was an absurd notion. The simple fact is that the SUV, much like the puzzling popularity of Ashlee Simpson, defied every predictor. Nobody saw it coming. By 2004, that 6.6 percent shot up to 27.5 percent. From a handful of SUV nameplates in 1990 they proliferated to over 200 by 2004. In 1993, I remember getting a call from an editor at the Newark Star Ledger asking me to write a story about trucks and SUVs replacing the family sedan and how trucks were now coming standard with amazing things like leather seats, FM radios and lighted vanity mirrors. I realized then that when the Guidos in Newark started paying attention to trucks instead of Town Cars and Eldos, the world as we knew it had ended.
If you can ascribe credit, or blame, for the culture-altering domination of the SUV to any single event, it would have to be the introduction of the Ford Explorer. Since it first appeared in 1990, the Explorer has remained the No. 1 selling SUV on the market. There are more than 5.5 million of them clogging America's roads and school drop-off zones. For reasons both valid and dopey, the SUV as articulated by Ford satisfied some deep inner longings in the bosom of the U.S. car buyer. From safety-minded suburban moms who wanted something that was "good to crash in," to survivalist groups who found them handy for carrying a lot of ordnance and freeze-dried deer meat, America went absolutely gaga over the SUV. And it was the Explorer that seemed to fit almost everybody's criteria of an SUV.
Just as surely as the Model T put an earlier generation of Americans on wheels, the Explorer raised the current generation's average H-point to the height of a yardstick.
Whatever you think of the Explorer, or SUVs in general, there's no arguing with success. So when it comes to evaluating the fourth generation of the 'ute that conquered the world, you approach the prospect knowing that its tally book has more check marks in the win column than it does in the loss column. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I own a green 1995 XLT which I bought new and currently registers 251,437 mostly trouble-free miles on the odometer.
Staying True to its Roots
When the world jumped on the SUV bandwagon, it divided itself into two camps -- the cult of crossover and the organized sect of traditionalists. Think of it as Nouvelle Cuisine versus steak and spuds. The heart of the difference lies in the body structure. The crossover (think tiny but exquisitely prepared food) pursued monocoque or unibody construction. Steel stampings folded and welded to form the actual structure of the vehicle. The traditionalists (pot roast) stuck with a ladder-frame substructure onto which a stamped body is bolted. Ladder-frame technology is as old as the box girder bridge. Older probably. Maybe buckboards or medieval siege engines. But the ladder-frame concept is so robust, it remains just as relevant today as it was when El Cid hurled boulders at the walls of Valencia.
If you want a smallish package with a hankering for handling and precision and don't care much about dragging a bass boat or hauling ATVs to the dunes, unibody is the way to go. Think BMW X5. In stark contrast, by modern standards a ladder-frame chassis is an inelegant solution. But it remains the best solution for towing strength, bending and torsional resistance, noise isolation and a host of other benefits. Of course, you lose out on precision and pay a weight penalty but you gain a lot in what your core buyer wants -- the rigidity of an Ayatollah.
Given Ford's certitude about its market, it's no surprise the '06 Explorer retains a traditional ladder frame. It's all-new, to be sure, with tube-through-frame design, mating surfaces welded around their full perimeters and tighter tolerances for suspension and body-mounting points but it's something that Brooklyn Bridge designer John Augustus Roebling would find comfortably familiar. Thanks to these refinements on what is essentially bridge-building technology, the new Explorer claims a 55-percent increase in torsional stiffness and a 63-percent increase in bending resistance over the previous generation.
Since you can't go wrong by banking on overkill, the '06 Explorer was put through the same durability and towing development program as the F-350, a vehicle whose duty cycle is intended for full-time tow use. As an occasional tow vehicle, the Explorer would appear to be wildly overqualified. With the V8 and six-speed automatic transmission, maximum towing capacity is a whopping 7,300 pounds.
There Is a Substitute for Cubic Inches
In direct contrast to the chassis, the powertrain is au moderne. Consider how far Ford has pushed its engine technology. In 1995, the workhorse 4.0-liter V6 produced 160 hp. The current V6 with the same displacement produces 210 hp and it generates 74-percent fewer emissions. That's a boost in power from 40 hp per liter to 52.5. The optional V8 that came with our test Explorer Limited produces 292 hp and 300 pound-feet of torque. With all that power, it still rates as a LEV II engine.
Ford's path to engine power, efficiency and clean emissions in the V8 began with a three-valve head design (two intakes and one exhaust) and a centrally located sparkplug. Two small intake valves aspirate a lot more of the fuel-air charge than one big one. Which means more power. And the centered plug provides symmetric flame propagation for more complete combustion. Aiding and abetting this inherently efficient design are a coil-on-plug ignition system for a hot and stable spark, a charge motion control valve to boost intake air velocities and cylinder filling at low engine speeds, and a variable camshaft timing (VCT) system. While not as sophisticated as some variable cam designs like Honda's legendary VTEC system that can alter valve lift as well as duration, Ford's VCT seems to do the job quite well. It currently operates on over a million V8 engines.
When you order the V8, you get the six-speed electronically controlled automatic. The V6 Explorer has a five-speed auto. The wide gear spacing afforded by a six-speed provides a multitude of benefits. You can have a fairly short gear for good launch from a stop, have the proper gears on hand to keep the engine in the fat part of the power and torque band during midrange operation, and still have a very efficient top gear for cruising. Since towing is part of this transmission's assignment, the half-dozen gears are complemented with three friction plates in the torque converter plus high fluid-flow rates to keep the assembly from going critical during high-load, heavy-duty operation.
Instrumented testing revealed that the 4,777-pound Limited achieved zero to 60 mph in a respectable 8.97 seconds.
Holding Your Ground
The Explorer's credentials as a truck would not be complete without the availability of all-wheel capability. Our Limited came equipped with Ford's Control Trac AWD system. The system has three modes. The first (4x4 Auto) is for everyday driving in which power is going only to the rear wheels. However, if the electronic system senses rear-wheel slip, power is delivered automatically to the front wheels. The second mode is 4x4 High. This has to be engaged by the driver and provides a 50/50 power delivery split to the front and rear wheels. This is where you want to be for driving off-road or in severe winter conditions. The 4x4 Low locks the transfer case and engages a torque-multiplying gear set in the transfer case. This mode is for the really deep stuff, steep grades, towing a boat out of the water, or pulling young children away from the Xbox. This is the mode of last resort before you call for an airlift.
With increased towing capacities come increased stopping needs. The 2006 Explorer's four-wheel disc brakes setup has been beefed up and redesigned accordingly to shed heat more efficiently. At the pedal, the brakes felt superb, progressive and unstressed -- that's particularly impressive in a vehicle that weighs close to 2.5 tons. Also impressive for such heft is a sedan-quality 130.9-foot 60-to-0 braking performance.
Too Swank for Dirt
Considering the Explorer's obvious strength, towing capacity, power and all-drive capability, a powerful dissonance kicks in when you're surrounded by the full-boat luxury interior. This truck is way too nice to get dirty. We're not positing a novel concept here or one unique to the Explorer. When a sport-utility goes beyond a certain price point and equipment level, you want people to wipe their feet and take sharp objects out of their pockets before boarding. "Dude, it'll scratch the leather. And finish the burrito before you get in."
When you get to the top of the line, the utility ceases to matter and a whole other set of values kicks in. Maybe we need another name for this type of truck. Marketers have tried with variants like "sport activity" or "sport adventure." But that still implies doing things that could dull the luster of an otherwise highly polished luxury ride. And there's no doubt that our $45,135 Explorer Limited is a fine luxury ride.
Realistically, most of the Explorer build will be Everyman XLTs -- starting at $30,450 -- and thus devoid of most of the stuff you want to keep careless passengers from messing with. With a judicious selection of features and equipment, there's no reason not to have a perfectly suitable daily driver that will see duty as a fertilizer hauler, bike carrier and ATV dragger.
While reluctant to load anything but soft cargo into the Limited, we wouldn't hesitate at putting friends into the optional third-row seats. Ford claims the rearmost seats were designed to accommodate a 95th-percentile male (6 feet 2). And that seems about right. We crawled back there and once you figure out how to climb aboard (lead with the left foot) you're provided with cupholders and small storage bins.
With the rear 50/50 rear seats folded down, you've got a smooth, level load floor. Ford went to great pains to ensure that small items like golf balls didn't roll down into the spaces left by gaps in the floor. The second-row seats also fold flat and even. If you want the ultimate in convenience, you can order the power-fold third-row option, a feature originally available only in the Lincoln Navigator.
It's Good to Be the King
To maintain the Explorer's leadership position, Ford packed it with everything it needed to fend off competitors. Most notable in the list of standard features is the safety package. For the '06 model, the Explorer is equipped with front-seat side airbags, dual-stage front airbags, an adaptive steering column to reduce intrusion in a front-end collision, adaptive airbag venting, driver-seat position sensors, and what it calls AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control, plus a lot more.
Previous generations of Explorers never lacked road manners. And the new one has raised the bar a few notches. With a front and rear independent suspension, nicely tuned dampers and springs, admirable road isolation thanks to liberal use of vibration-absorbing butyl mounts and a surprisingly responsive steering system, the latest iteration continues to bear the standard for that traditionalist part of the business.
The World Awaits
Gas shocks and eco-activists notwithstanding, the SUV will probably remain a permanent fixture in the U.S. transpo fleet for the simple reason that it makes a tremendous amount of sense to a whole lot of people. It's a remarkably flexible concept that lends itself well to a bewildering variety of real-world needs and otherworldly desires.
While we don't know what interesting geopolitical surprises await us in the near future, the Explorer is a case study in the auto industry's ability to engineer its way toward solutions that allow us to have our cake, tow it with the boat to the lake, and eat it under our Bimini top.
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our 2006 Explorer Limited came with a host of entertainment options including a navigation system and rear-seat DVD player. Standard equipment also includes a 290-watt Audiophile stereo. That system includes an in-dash, six-disc CD changer and the ability to read MP3 CDs. There are seven speakers including a cargo-area-mounted subwoofer.
Performance: This audio/entertainment system combination offers lots of options including three listening zones. It's possible to have front-seat occupants listen to the radio through the speakers while the second-row passengers can watch and listen to a DVD through the provided wireless headphones. At the same time the third-row passengers can listen to the CD player through yet another set of headphones.
This system is also kid-friendly to a point. While the slot to load DVDs in located in the back seating area, the controls for that DVD (play, pause, fast-forward, etc.) can be accessed either from the front or the backseat. This is especially helpful when kids under the age of 6 or so want to watch a DVD. Just pop it in when you leave and you can play it from the driver seat. Unfortunately, you'll have to stop to change DVDs -- a front-access DVD like that found in the BMW X3 would really be helpful.
When equipped with the navigation system, the interface for controlling all types of media is fairly straightforward. The hard buttons on both sides of the screen work well with the touchscreen buttons and there's never any confusion. Hard buttons labeled "Media" or "Sound" make it easy to get to the correct screen with little head-scratching.
The sound quality of the Audiophile stereo is fine but not stellar. In the past we've complained about Audiophile systems not having enough bass but this Explorer stereo doesn't seem to suffer from that. The best sound quality still comes from boosting the levels a little and both highs and lows sound good. In a perfect world, we'd like to hear a little more sparkle or detail from this stereo but it's not bad the way it is. The bass lacks precision and can turn very "rumbly" on powerful rap or rock tracks.
This stereo's relatively high score of "8" comes not because of the sound quality but because of the way it seamlessly combines many media types and listening options without confusion. On top of that, the sound quality is acceptable.
Best Feature: Great interface.
Worst Feature: Muddy bass.
Conclusion: A good stereo that offers OK sound quality. Its strong point is the ability to access multiple media types (MP3, DVD, CD, Radio) from one controller. Easy to use goes a long way in a family hauler like this. -- Brian Moody
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says:
Sport-utility vehicles may be starting to go out of style, but the good ones are going to stick around a while longer even if they can't pull 20 mpg. And Ford's Explorer is one of the good ones. I've always liked the way the current-generation Explorer rides and handles, but Ford's engineers have stiffened and tuned the 2006 model to the point that virtually no bump or rut can upset its chassis. Handling is about as nimble as it gets for a body-on-frame SUV, though Toyota's 4Runner has slightly more accurate steering.
Inside, the Explorer remains the family-friendliest of all midsize SUVs. Passengers of any size can get comfortable in the second row, and the 60/40 second-row seats have a simple fold-and-flip mechanism that makes it easy to access the third row. And not only does the third row fold flat in 50/50 sections, the bench is high enough off the floor that even I can sit back there in reasonable comfort and I'm 5-foot-10. I can't say that about the 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder or Dodge Durango.
My complaints about the Explorer come down to cabin materials, poorly designed interior door handles and the V8's so-so power. There's no question the textured plastics are more appealing than those in last year's model, but the stuff on the door tops and dash remains brittle and cheap. As for the door handles, if I can't reach 'em from the driver seat, it's not a good design. And although the new 24-valve V8 is indeed smooth, it doesn't offer as much low-end torque as I think an eight-cylinder should. The V8s from Toyota, Chrysler and GM are all stronger off the line. As it is, I'd go with a V6 Explorer and save myself a thousand bucks -- which isn't a bad idea anyway, because the less I spend at the dealer, the less I worry about not buying a more fuel-efficient Honda Odyssey to handle my transportation needs.
Senior Features Editor Joanne Helperin says:
I admit it: I'm an import SUV buyer. I'd like to "buy American," but haven't, for all the typical reasons. So when the 2006 Explorer debuted, I asked hopefully: Is this the midsize domestic SUV that could finally lure me (and thousands of like-minded Americans) away from imports?
The answer is yes. And no, depending on your needs. If you use your SUV for towing, going off-road, or if you carry five-plus people regularly, then the answer is yes, this is the one. The new Explorer has the truck underpinnings that give it the necessary muscle and grit, along with better payload and towing capabilities than most car-based competitors. Its handling and safety features are remarkably improved and it's easy to maneuver in just about any situation. Say, "Hallelujah!"
But if, like me, you're one of the many who like a tough look and tall stance but have no true need for a truck's capabilities, you may still be happier with a car-based SUV that feels peppier. Even with the V8, the Ford's low-end torque was lacking in this heavy vehicle (curb weight is more than 4,600 pounds). While it's a much better-riding vehicle than most other truck-based SUVs, it still can't compare in terms of agility and fun on the pavement to its car-based cousins.
Still undecided? On the "yes" side, the Explorer's interior is possibly the most usable one ever in a midsize seven-passenger SUV. The third-row seats have unbeatable spaciousness and comfort. If you opt for the split, power, fold-flat version, the convenience alone makes this pricy option worth every penny. The dash is handsome and all controls are functional and intuitive. If you load it up with leather and options, it feels plusher than its import-brand rivals.
The "no" side? Very simple: The dismal fuel economy offsets its otherwise competitive price.
The bottom line: While it didn't quite convince me to buy it, the 2006 Explorer is a vehicle that dedicated import buyers should definitely test-drive before they decide.
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