Let's get sexist. Let's get politically insurrect and start drilling beneath the surface of the 2006 Ford Explorer. Although it doesn't qualify as an all-new model -- there's still enough 2005 Explorer in the mix to prevent that distinction -- the 2006 Explorer has had a heck of a lot more work done on it than just a face-lift (that's not the sexist part -- the sexist part's still coming).
The new Explorer is quieter, more powerful, better-looking, better equipped, several rungs higher on the safety ladder, and a sweeter value than its predecessor -- (now comes the sexist part) and it's all because of a woman. That's right, Ford placed the fate of its best-selling midsize symbol of masculine needs and breeding -- the Explorer sport-utility vehicle -- in the hands of Judy Curran, chief engineer.
Judy's a quiet engineering filly, but man, does she ever know how to build an Explorer -- especially one for families.
It's slightly bigger and heavier than the 2005 model
Four trim levels: XLS and XLT models (for basic and one-step-up buyers), and Eddie Bauer and Limited editions (for the upper-crust crowd)
Two-row seating (for five occupants), or three rows (for six or seven)
V6 or V8 power
Rear-drive or all-wheel drive
Wheel choices ranging from 16-inch steel to 17-inch aluminum to 18-inch chromed
The Feminine Side: A Nice, Quiet Interior
No SUV ever lost points for being quiet enough to allow a conversation to take place between the first- and second-row passengers. Most SUVs, in fact, are echo chambers that bounce road noise, wind noise and engine noise around. Judy Curran didn't like that about SUVs, so her team loaded the Explorer with sound-insulation materials. Now the Explorer driver can even communicate with the kids in the optional third row without having to scream. Ford claims to lead the class in front-seat quietude, and we heard nothing to cause us to doubt it.
And in the absence of brain-rattling noise, you'll also notice that the Explorer's interior has been shaped up nicely, too. We drove the high-end offerings lined with leather (XLS and XLT models start with cloth seats) and packing V8 engines and all-wheel drive. The leather looked good -- felt good, too -- especially when accented by the Preferred Suede inserts. Not especially deep, the front bucket seats do provide good support for long-distance travel.
The driver benefits from a large speedo and tachometer, ringed in "chrome" on the upscale models. Headroom abounds in the first two rows, and second-row legroom is surprisingly generous, even in the three-row configurations.
So how much room do you need for your stuff? In two-row Explorers, there's 45.1 cubic feet of stowage space with the rear seats up, and 85.8 cubic feet in seats-down mode. That's generous for this class. Three-row Explorers present 13.6, 43.9 and 83.7 cubic feet as you move through the seats-down variations.
The Masculine Side: Horsepower
The Grrrrr factor for the 2006 Explorer comes in V6 and V8 forms. The 4.0-liter single-overhead-cam six, paired to last year's five-speed automatic transmission, put out 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque along with ultralow emissions (as good as Ford's Escape hybrid).
Bigger news, however, comes from the 292-hp V8. New to the Explorer this year, the optional 4.6-liter single-cam shares both spirit and three-valve-per-cylinder heads with the Mustang GT. The engine's 300 lb-ft of torque at 3,950 rpm, mated to a new six-speed automatic, raises the V8 Explorer's tow limit to 7,300 pounds. As a bonus, the six-speed also improves the fuel economy. The V8 lifts the Explorer off the line with decent escape velocity, but the midrange passing power was noticeably less Mustang-like -- this truck's torque is used for towing.
On four-wheel-drive models, the Control Trac system carries over, allowing the driver to select three modes: 4x4 Auto (essentially rear-wheel drive until rear-wheel slip is detected, then power is apportioned to the fronts), 4x4 High (which locks the center differential and splits the torque 50/50 front/rear), and 4x4 Low (for slow, rough off-road slogging through sand or what-have-you).
The Feminine Side: A Nice, Compliant Ride
The frame side of the Explorer's body-on-frame setup got a significant makeover. "Tube-through-tube" construction, adapted from the F-Series trucks, adds significant stiffness to the frame for better stability as well as less twisting, which means less "wringing out" of the body which creates squeaks. A new monotube shock design front and rear, and revised independent rear suspension settled the Explorer ride beautifully on-road and off.
The Masculine Side: Handling
And on those rare occasions when your Explorer does make an off-road appearance, you macho man from Mars, you'll appreciate how the Venusian comfort changes to the suspension also help you maintain control of the vehicle. And if you do run out of talent, the standard AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control will kick in (but not so early that you can't have a little fun playing in the dirt).
The standard four-wheel antilock disc brakes have been beefed up for 2006 to match the SUV's improved towing and payload capacity.
The Feminine Side: Safety
If you're shopping for a midsize SUV and you've placed safety at or near the top of your list, your list should include the 2006 Explorer. Ford has fortified the '06 Explorer to earn a galaxy of stars on federal front- and side-impact crash test ratings. In addition to the previous Explorer's front-impact and side curtain head-protection airbags, the 2006 model includes front-seat side-impact airbags. The '06 also employs a number of sensors designed to assess things like front-occupant size, seating position and crash severity, then deploy the vehicle's safety features to the greatest benefit.
Everybody Likes Value: The Sexist Conclusion
So how'd the skirt do? Well, she made the Explorer quieter. And safer. And nicer to live with. And better-looking. And better-riding. And better-handling. And more powerful than ever. In short, Judy Curran's Explorer priorities mirror what America keeps searching for in a family SUV.
Now here's the kicker: The 2006 Ford Explorer is less expensive than the 2005. Starting at $27,175 for a base XLS and moving up through the Limited (which starts at $33,160), you save an average of $1,750 over last year. Here's to a woman's touch.