So here's the latest fantasy the marketing wonks would have you believe: Mountain-Dew-guzzling adrenaline junkies buy vehicles like the 2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Honda Ridgeline and Nissan Frontier, to suit their (over)active lifestyles. Seriously. That's what they want you to think. Get one of these trucks and in no time you'll be winning triathlons, paddling down Class V rapids and mountain biking over volcanoes.
Sure you will.
OK, so we all know these trucks make more trips to Home Depot than they do to the alpine starting line. And there are certainly more armchair quarterbacks than genuine endurance athletes driving them. But they do, according to Ford's sales figures for the previous Sport Trac (about 60,000 annually between 2001 and 2005), serve a customer base that's in love with their utility. Either that or all that Mountain Dew is affecting their buyers' judgment.
New and improved
The Sport Trac currently on sale has been completely redesigned for the 2007 model year. Intended to bridge the gap between a truck and an SUV, the Sport Trac shares its fundamental structure and powertrain options with the 2006 Ford Explorer. But the addition of a 4.1-foot bed behind the four-door cabin necessitates an overall length that's nearly 17 inches longer than the Explorer. Most of that length comes between the wheels, meaning the Sport Trac drives more like a long truck than a short SUV.
"The new chassis puts the Sport Trac firmly in the 21st century in terms of structural rigidity," said Chris Brewer, Sport Trac's chief engineer. Ford tells us the latest Sport Trac is 444 percent stiffer than the previous model, thanks to a revised ladder-frame design that's taller, wider and thicker in critical areas than before. It also integrates a tow hitch into the most rearward crossmember for strength and to eliminate the weight of a secondary bolt-on receiver.
An all-new suspension design takes advantage of the additional chassis rigidity. The front suspension uses unequal-length upper and lower control arms. The independent rear suspension is new and similar in design to the front, but adds a stamped-steel trailing link.
Engine options are the same as with the Explorer, too: Buyers choose between a 4.0-liter, 210-horsepower, 254-pound-feet V6 or a 4.6-liter, 292-hp, 300-lb-ft V8. The V6 comes with a five-speed automatic and the V8, one of only two in the midsize truck segment, comes with a six-speed auto. We tested a Sport Trac Limited 4x4 with the V8 that was loaded with optional equipment.
How's she handle?
On the road, the Sport Trac proved to be exactly the mix of ride and handling its chassis promises. There's no bizarre or uncomfortable solid-axle handling traits -- no hop, no lateral movement over high-frequency road irregularities. There's little indication in its ride that this truck has a 1,350-pound payload capacity and 6,640-pound towing capacity.
Steering is adequately weighted, but lacks any sort of feedback that would encourage spirited driving. Not that this matters much, since we're talking about a truck with four doors, four-wheel drive and more than 2 tons of curb weight. Even so, the lighter Honda Ridgeline is more articulate in communicating chassis responses.
Sport Tracs are available in two- or four-wheel drive. Four-wheel-drive versions have three modes. The first mode, 4x4 Auto, is suitable for everyday driving. In this mode the Sport Trac is rear-wheel drive until sensors tell the transfer case clutch to engage the front wheels. Two other modes, 4x4 High and 4x4 Low, lock the front and rear driveshafts at the same speed. Low range engages a torque-multiplying gearset for heavy-duty off-roading.
In practice, the automatic mode is brilliant, engaging seamlessly and effortlessly pulling the truck up steep hills and over obstacles without the need to stop and pull a lever or push a button. Low range engages and disengages quickly with the transmission in neutral.
It's clear the Ford truck crew was at least mildly inspired by the usability built into Honda's Ridgeline. The Sport Trac has three storage compartments in its bed, which is constructed from sheet-molded composite (SMC). According to Ford, SMC is 20 percent lighter than a traditional steel box. It also won't rust or dent.
In addition to the rather small built-in storage compartments, the Sport Trac can be optioned with a folding cargo-bed extender ($195) and a hard tonneau cover ($595). There's also a 12-volt power outlet in the bed -- a feature the Ridgeline doesn't have.
Inside, the rear seatbacks are split 60/40 and fold flat over the seat bottoms to provide a flat cargo floor. This is a nice feature, but we prefer the Ridgeline's seat design, which folds the seat bottoms up against the seatbacks and provides more cargo height and almost as much width, despite having less rear legroom. Speaking of rear legroom, Ford points out that the Sport Trac has more than any other truck in its class.
Full-size engine, midsize performance
Ford also brags that Sport Tracs fitted with the V8 have class-leading power and combined with the six-speed automatic transmission, we braced ourselves for some impressive performance. However, in acceleration tests, the Sport Trac delivered performance almost identical to the rest of the midsize players. It hit 60 in 8.1 seconds, which is the same as the last Toyota Tacoma Crew Cab long bed we tested. The Sport Trac ran through the quarter-mile in 16.5 seconds at 84.6 mph, slower than both the Nissan Frontier Crew Cab (16.2 seconds) and Tacoma (16.1 seconds).
The Sport Trac will tow marginally more than the Frontier and Tacoma. Four-wheel-drive, V8-powered Sport Tracs are rated to tow up to 6,640 pounds, which is considerable relative to the Ridgeline's 5,000-pound rating.
Despite better-than-average ride quality, the Sport Trac failed to deliver on its promise of nimble handling through the slalom. We'll be the first to admit that a truck's slalom speed is about as important to most buyers as humility is to Donald Trump, but this test is a good measure of handling performance relative to other vehicles in the same class. And that's where the Sport Trac let us down. Its 55.6-mph slalom pass was slower than the Ridgeline, Tacoma and Frontier. The low speed is mostly thanks to Ford's AdvanceTrac stability control system, which can't be disabled and is ultraconservative in its efforts to rein in the chassis as cornering loads increase.
Fuel economy was also disappointing. At 14.4 mpg the Sport Trac lived up to its big engine's reputation for fuel consumption during the 670 miles of combined highway and city driving we measured. That's a few miles per gallon worse than the Tacoma, Frontier and Ridgeline we've tested.
Ford's interior gurus did their job as well as can be expected on the Sport Trac. Just don't plan on being pampered with exotic materials or outstanding craftsmanship. There are plenty of nice features like adjustable pedals, two-tone leather and heated 10-way adjustable seats, but the whole treatment is watered down by Ford's rather generic (and dated) switchgear, audio system and layout.
Functionally, most of the Sport Trac interior is relatively intuitive in use. Heating and ventilation controls are all buttons. We prefer the speed and simplicity of knobs, but apparently those aren't an option in the Ford parts bin. The redundant steering-wheel controls for the heating/ventilation and audio system are a nice touch.
The one serious oversight in the Sport Trac's interior is a product of Ford's focus on safety. The front door armrests are designed to cushion the abdomen in a side impact, which means they're made of soft rubber and don't have a built-in handle. The awkward design requires the release to be positioned on the front of the armrest, with the handle underneath it toward the front of the door. Opening the door isn't a problem -- yank on the release and shove the door open with your forearm. But closing it is far from simple, since the handle is so close to the hinges that there's very little leverage available to swing the heavy door shut.
The good news is that the Sport Trac's interior is relatively quiet and rattle-free. Ford went through significant effort to insulate and damp the interior from wind and road noise, and it's obvious from behind the wheel.
Get your wet suit, it's time to take a bath
The Sport Trac does little to distinguish itself, and we find few reasons to pick it over the other choices in the segment. If you've got to have the low-range transfer case, then it does offer at least one advantage over the Ridgeline. Well, that and it actually looks like a truck. But factor in towing capacity, performance, fuel-efficiency and versatility, and the Tacoma and Frontier are stronger options.
Then there's the price. Base pricing for the latest-generation Sport Trac is similar to the previous generation. Load up the options, however, and the story changes. Minus the leather seats, tonneau cover and the bed extender, a comparably equipped Toyota Tacoma, which performs better and is more fuel-efficient, costs about $3,500 less than our heavily optioned $34,625 tester. We're not sure how the marketing folks are going to spin that one, but we bet it involves a lot of Mountain Dew.
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our Sport Trac Limited had the optional Audiophile stereo, which adds a six-disc CD changer and a subwoofer to the existing Limited stereo. The system can play MP3 CDs and has the option of Sirius Satellite Radio -- the Sport Trac is one of the first Fords to offer satellite radio. The Audiophile stereo costs an extra $510.
Performance: We've been less than impressed with previous Audiophile systems, but in the new Explorer Sport Trac, the system sounds OK. It's still not where we think it should be, given that it is the only audio system upgrade available on most Fords, but it does offer acceptable sound and an easy-to-use interface. This is probably the best-sounding Audiophile stereo we've listened to.
The head unit is typical Ford -- nothing fancy, just a simple straightforward design. We sort of wish Ford would ditch the old green LED display that looks like a 1980s calculator, but functionally, everything is where it should be and works well. However, we're a little disappointed by the lack of an MP3 auxiliary jack.
In previous Audiophile stereos, we found that the best possible sound quality came by turning the bass and treble all the way up. This time around the sound is fair even without the tone adjustments boosted. Add a little treble, and the sound quality does improve some. The bass is there but it lacks precision. Even with the subwoofer, the bass sometimes turns rumbly or messy.
Separation is so-so at best. Since there's no midrange adjustment, the mids seem to be overwhelming at times. However, the system does offer a few settings that make it possible to customize the sound. You can make the sound center on the front, rear or "all" seating positions, and the compression feature helps music sound better when listening at low volumes.
Best Feature: Satellite radio finally available.
Worst Feature: Ford needs a premium sound system as an option.
Conclusion: While this is the best-sounding Audiophile system we've heard, it isn't nearly as nice as other brands' truly premium audio offerings. -- Brian Moody
Director of Automotive Testing Dan Edmunds Says:
My first car was a Ford -- a 1969 Ranchero. I hauled ass, and occasionally hauled my dirt bikes, in that car. My second car (my first new one) was also a Ford. That's where it all stopped for me. The 2006 Ford Sport Trac is not a vehicle that is going to win me back.
It begins as soon as I walk up to put the key in the door and see the mismatched edges (by a quarter inch) on adjacent B-pillar black-out trim panels. The interior looks like a plastics trade show display, complete with the latest in bad faux-carbon and awful plasti-chrome trim. It's best not to mention the shift lever. Let's just say it comes from the same folks who named a car "Probe."
The interior simply isn't laid out logically. Prime front-and-center instrument panel space is wasted on the odometer and warning lights, which are rarely on, so there's just a large blank space. Meanwhile, the fuel gauge is tucked away in a dark corner and the speedo and tach are so far apart it looks like they had a fight and want their "space." A quick glance to check speed and fuel level feels like a peripheral-vision eye test. I could go on about switchgear, but you get the point.
This is the kind of stuff that has kept me in Asian cars for the last 20 years. Like just about everyone, I spend most of my time looking at the inside of my cars, so this "office" has to work. With this one, I wouldn't even get to the test-drive phase to notice the improved ride and less agricultural engine sound.
The Sport Trac seems targeted at an ever dwindling existing fan base. I'm not sure that Ford can survive for long if this reflects how low it is willing to aim. I really want the home team to do well, but this one is not going to win back lost customers like me.
Executive Editor Scott Oldham says:
I think I like driving the Ford Explorer Sport Trac. I think it has a smooth ride. I think it has good power, responsive brakes and agreeable handling.
I think the Sport Trac has those attributes, but I'm not really sure. When I drive it all I can think about is how poorly designed its interior is. This thing is an ergonomic mess. The seating position is way too high, the gauges are impossible to read and the e-brake release is buried a foot under the dash. Even the steering wheel is misshapen.
Some genius also thought it would be a good idea to put the air-conditioning vents below the radio. Some genius with hot elbows. But the worst offenses are the door panels. Whoever designed the poorly placed pulls and oddly shaped door handles must prefer a square toilet seat.
How this happens in the age of extensive focus groups and endless data, I'll never know, but I do know it doesn't happen at Honda, Toyota or Nissan. The interiors of our long-term Ridgeline, Tacoma and Frontier are all designed for human use.
"Go for the Toyota, or a Honda, or even a Nissan. I had a 2001 Sport Trac, what a waste of money. Head gasket started leaking at 18K, Ford refused to acknowledge there was a problem. Fuel mileage was horrible, lucky if I got 14 MPG. Fit and finish was subpar. Late 2004 I went with a Honda and will never look back. Family members having been driving a variety of Hondas since '87, and yes it is true, they are far superior to domestic cars. Sure, the Japanese cars have problems too as they are built by humans, but they are much less frequent." -- paul512001, April 2, 2006
"I drove a new Sport Trac last week and was fully impressed. My mindset going into the test-drive was fairly negative about the Sport Trac, thinking that I would probably purchase an '05 Explorer or '05 Mountaineer to reap the big discounts available. After test-driving all three, my decision is easy. I'll purchase a new V8 Sport Trac hands down. It offers a powerful, quiet, and a very stable drive much akin to its big brother, the F-150." -- mustangguy74, April 14, 2006
"After test-driving Nissan, Honda, Chevy, Dodge, Toyota, this is the best midsize truck on the market unless you are a serious rock climber. And after a full two weeks of ownership, I like the '07 Sport Trac even more! Everyone who has ridden in it can't believe the ride and feel, in fact, a friend admitted it is as nice on the interior as the '06 Chevy Tahoe, and $15,000 cheaper! Incidentally, the heated windshield option is very trick during the rain -- instant fog clear. My main disappointment, as stated before, was that the mileage was well below the sticker claim, but floor the pedal getting onto a long interstate on-ramp and you can't believe you are in a truck, this baby is very fast." -- kman1956, April 14, 2006