2006 Ford Explorer XLT AWD

Car-like refinement, as practical as it can be. Who will ever need the Expedition?

This mid-size sport utility vehicle was acquired as a rental vehicle with ~8,600 miles on the odometer at the time of pick up. It stayed with us for two days. We drove approximately ~600 miles. The test route included the San Francisco urban traffic, enduring incline of US50 to South Lake Tahoe, & the scenic route US89 to Reno. The entire trip in the Explorer was with 5 average size adults. The averaged fuel consumption was 18 mpg.

Ford introduced their 1st generation Explorer back in 1990 as a 1991 model. It was a rather instant success in terms of selling volume, and by landing itself a major role in Jurassic Park in 1993. Like most of the predecessor SUV of that era, the original Explorer is a hybrid of a station wagon body on top of the pickup chassis, body-on-frame design. In which, it was meant to have the comfort and refinement as a station wagon, yet having the capabilities of a pickup. Our tester has evolved to be the 4th generation in the Explorer history in 2006. Similar to its predecessors, this 4th generation Explorer retains the body-on-frame layout but lacks of solid axle rear suspension. In 2006, the Explorer is available in three trim levels, the XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited. Each can be equipped with optional four-wheel-drive, and 4.6L V8 engine with 6-speed automatic transmission. Our tester is the XTL AWD model with 4.0L 12valve V6 SOHC engine. It is assembled in Louisville, Kentucky. The equipped Germany built engine pumps out 210hp@5,100rpm and 254Ib-ft of torque@3,700rpm. Engine is longitudinally mounted, driving the 5-speed automatic transmission. Engine power is then transmitted to the electrically controlled full-time four-wheel-drive transfer case to divert engine power to the wheels. Traction is provided by a set of P235/70R16, Michelin Cross Terrain tires. The chassis is supported by independent double wishbone suspensions with stabilizer bar in front, and independent suspension with stabilizer bar supporting the rear corners. Stopping power is generated by 4 wheel ABS discs brakes with ventilated discs in the front.

With our previous SUV tester, the Hummer H3, we weren’t too excited upon receiving the Explorer. If you’ve read our review on the H3, you will understand how much we were disappointed and disapproval of larger SUVs. With the Explorer’s exterior dimensions, it is not hard to spot our tester in the lot filled only with sedans. This 4th gen. Explorer appeared to be as big as the 1st gen. Expedition, based on the engineers’ best analysis method – eyeballing. However, the changes to the exterior styling of the Explorer was so unnoticeable, or perhaps we’ve ever pay any attentions to it before. Crawling onto the driver seat, we were surprised on how upscale the interior is, with the feel of a currently released Land Rover LR3 to it. Isn’t Ford has control over Land Rover now? Having the common trend of platform sharing amount the car manufactures, without knowing much about the background the LR3, and Explorer, we wondered if the Explorer is LR3 spin off or vice versa.

The standard engine generates sufficient low end torque to pull around town, and accelerate in an acceptable manner when not fully loaded. This Explorer tends to struggle to accelerate to freeway speed at freeway on ramps when loaded with passengers and luggage during our weekend getaway, where the high attitude in the mountain passes chokes the engine from sucking the needed oxygen – less oxygen content in the atmosphere at higher attitude, causes engine to produce less power than at sea level. However, the engine operates smoothly and muted, despite our repeatedly hard pushes on the easy-to-modulate electronic throttle, but the pedal require higher than normal operating effort, and it can be tiresome to operate in a long journey. This Germany built Cologne 60 deg cast iron block/aluminum heads V6 engine demonstrated the classic characteristics of SOHC 2-valves per cylinder design; emphasis in low end torque, but runs out of breath, and losses efficiency at higher rpm. This characteristic should be a perfect match for trucks and SUVs that require hauling and towing, however, the output on this Cologne engine seemed insufficient even to just propel the Explorer’s own ~4,650 curb weight. The insufficient power is mainly due to the inefficiency of the engine power-to-displacement ratio in today’s standard. Its 4.0L achieved only below-average output compare to a similar displacement, and engine configuration as Nissan Xterra where it has 281Ib-ft@4,000rpm, and 261hp@5,600rpm. The Cologne engine has been around for decades in different configurations, and it is showing signs of aging in the Explorer, and its antiqueness has also shown in the use of distributor-less coil pack ignition system, instead of the commonly used coil-on-plug design.

Mated to the decade old engine is the fairly modern 5-speed automatic transmission with electronically controlled shift-on-the-fly transfer case. It has better than average responsiveness with an acceptably minor hint of delay during kickdown, but it however, can be one of the best transmissions equipped in a mid-size domestic SUV. It also operates muted and smoothly regardless downshifting or upshifting without GM’s Hydro-Matic construction equipment like hydraulic “wheeze” sound. Gear ratios seem to have well thought out by Ford to match the engine’s characteristics. Overall, the transmission made up for the engines shortcoming by allowing relatively effortless downshifting. However, the floor mounted shift gate seems to have non-typical operation layout than the norm. One would expect by placing the shifter at 3rd. The transmission will limit the gear usage from 1st to 3rdgear only, with D to allow shifting into 4th and overdrive to allow the usage of the 5thgear. However, in the Explore, the 3rd gear is where you will be locked into 3rd gear, where you will be driving in 3rd gear only regardless acceleration from a complete stop or not. Seems like a feature for offroading enthusiasts that they want to easily modulate torque output, but I thought the 2nd gear selection will do just fine for their use. It seems to us that who hardly go hardcore offroading, the 3rd gear selection is not as practical as it suggests.

The 4 wheel disc brakes setup provided good pedal feel, and feedback. Brake modulation is very linear, but like the throttle pedal, the brake pedal also requires heavy operating effort. Initial brake pedal input provide good bit between the pads and the rotor. ABS involvement is somewhat apparent but offers confidence. Braking distance is well within expectation for its class, considering the truck is fully loaded with passengers and our weekend getaway belongs. A glance at the front brake rotors via the 16″ 6-spoke painted aluminum rims, revival the OEM pads are very aggressive that they are already wearing out the rotors. It looks like it has more than 20,000 miles of heavy-duty usage. But the vehicle only has 8,600 miles on the odometer.

The suspension and steering setup on the Explorer has reflected Ford has used considerable effort in design and tuning to provide a car-like refinement and responsiveness in the handling department. And these attribute can be easily detected and appreciated by the driver and passengers onboard. In this 4th gen. Explorer, gone is the solid axle rear suspension, but in favor of a revised independent rear suspension with more expensive front and rear monotube shock design to enhance comfort and handling in the expense of offroad capabilities due to reduced ground clearance, and monotube are more vulnerable to debris damages. The onroad manner of the Explorer is refined; non-SUV like, provided by the very composed setup. Body roll is nicely controlled. Nose dive under heavy braking is better than average in SUV standard. The setup transmits precise feedbacks, and road feel without being too soft or floaty in SUV standard, even seem to be better than some domestic compact cars.

Like its suspension, the steering input and feedback via the thick sidewalk front tires are as direct, and define as it can get in a SUV. The on center feel is accurate, lack of the artificial feel from the Hummer H3, thanks to the reduction in weight on the front upper and lower control arms. The hydraulic power assisted rack-and-pinion, is nicely weighted for parking lot maneuvers, but slightly too light for freeway travel.

The agility of this close-to-2.5ton beast is sustained by its strong backbone. The body-on-frame chassis has the “Tube-through-tube” construction layout adapted from Ford’s heavy-duty F-Series trucks, where all mated surfaces are welded around their full perimeters, with more precise tolerances for body and suspension mounting points. Ford claimed this chassis is 55% stronger in torsional stiffness, and 63% improvement in bending resistance compare to the previous generation. In English, the chassis is quite stiff and it is noticeably squeak-free regardless how you toss-and-turn the Explorer thru rough pavement. But don’t be mistaken squeak-free as rattle-free though, there are some rattling interior trim pieces when traveling over imperfect pavement, but never loud enough to cause annoyance. The interior is muted; wind engine and road intruding into the cabin are minimal. Fit-and-finish, however, is no where close to import standard, but still better than some of the GM products. The speedometer and tachometer in the gauge cluster have simple layout and easy to read. Most of the switchgears on the center console are intuitive, except the fog light switch and the emergency brake release lever. The fog light switch is integrated into the headlight switch where it requires an odd operation action, a pull on the switch to turn on the fog lights and a push to turn it off, but the switch itself has no labels or directions about it. The emergency brake release lever has inconvenient placement, where it is placed in the typical hood release lever location and its operation acts in the same way us hood release that caused us to think twice after using releasing the brakes to ensure we did not pop open the hood.

Overall, the Explorer left us a fairly decent impression. We have the tendency to trash larger SUV in past reviews, however, the Explorer’s great functionality, and practicality impressed us. We especially appreciate the fairly roomy and “fold away” third row seat that allows the Explorer to be able to serve as minivan to haul kids around when not hauling loads. The amenities this Explorer has offered should be the most and should fulfill the needs for 95% of the SUV owners. Everything larger is just plain uneconomical and irresponsible to the environment when use as commuter by just the driver alone. This Explorer is great for taking out the entire family for weekend getaway, and for soccer moms to haul kids (noticed we used plural) around. And it is still inappropriate to use it as a commuter by just the driver alone. Its efficiency comes in when the interior is fully occupied.

Overall Impression
Scoring System:

Performance & Acceleration: 5
Comment: Average. Laboring engine when loaded with passengers and luggage. Outdated engine spec.

Drivetrain: 6
Comment: Efficient, and smooth.

Handling & Cornering: 5
Comment: Very precise as a SUV.

Brake Feel: 6.5
Comment: Progressive, and solid but require high operating effort.

Ride Characteristic: 7.5
Comment: Car-like refinement.

Interior Comfort: 8
Comment: Plenty of room. Better than average for the ease of switchgear operation for domestic standard.

Workmanship: 7.5
Comment: Better than average quality as domestic built.

Functionality: 9.5
Comment: Exterior and interior sized properly, and with foldaway third row seat.

Technology: 6
Comment: Nothing fancy to really standout. Basic!.

When thinking of SUV ancestors, Ford Explorer has the similar history and achievement as the Chrysler Caravan. The Explorer has geared toward on-road duty more than offroad capability like most SUVs on sale today. With the XLT’s $30,000 MSRP, there are numerous competitors that offers more refined, and higher ouput engines. Potential buyers should shop around, and reconsider to see if SUV is what they really need, especially the increasingly high fuel prices, the issues with global warming, and the anti-SUV crowd. END