2006 Ford Explorer
Latest SUV from Ford highlights safety and luxury
By Bill Roebuck
Ford's 2006 Explorer SUV features significant enhancements over the 2005 model. The changes include a very nice-looking new front styling, updated rear end appearance, a redesigned interior, better seating, more power, higher towing capacity, improved fuel economy, fewer emissions and, importantly, a bevy of new safety features. Best of all, the price is lower than the current model -- by as much as $2,000, depending on the configuration.
The 2006 Explorer is all-new from the A-pillars that frame the windshield forward, while the rest of it has been refined. (It should be in Canadian dealer showrooms around the end of September, 2005.)
Three trim levels are available -- XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited; that's one less than the current lineup, with the former base XLS missing. (Ford eliminated its lowest price model, which it can say the new ones are less all expensive than last year. But the three carryover designations are, in fact, cheaper.)
The 2006 model is distinguished with a new front end that offers three unique grille designs taken from the look of the latest F-150 pickup. A new lift gate and taillights adorn the rear.
You still get a smooth-riding vehicle that's off-road capable (all Canadian models are equipped with all-wheel drive, although two-wheel drive is offered in the U.S. and Mexico). Seating capacity ranges from five to seven passengers, depending on the configuration.
Notably, the new Explorer is probably the quietest SUV you'll ever drive. "Our goal was to improve conversations with passengers, so we focused on those frequency ranges," said Lucy Yuen, the company's supervisor of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness).
Ford backed up its quietness claim at a media introduction of the new model in mid-July with charts and graphs from sophisticated sound measuring equipment. The company also allowed us to drive a bevy of competitive SUVs back to back with the new Explorer to hear for ourselves.
The media launch took place at Lake Placid in upper New York State. Test drives took us through villages and along highways wending through the Adirondacks. There were scheduled stops along the route where cutaways of various bodies and components were available for examination. Engineers and marketing staff were on hand at each stage to answer questions.
The three display areas focussed on the major elements Ford is emphasizing in its new Explorer -- quietness, power and safety.
Since the next-quietest model on Ford's chart was the Nissan Pathfinder, I compared it back-to-back on a test course at the Whisper Ranch that included a rough forest road, a bumpy farm field and rough pavement. There was no contest! The Explorer was definitely hushed compared to the Pathfinder.
New interior materials help to quell sounds at certain frequencies. Even the sound from the climate control system was subdued by 30 per cent.
Yuen explained how wind tunnel testing revealed a way to make the side mirrors -- which are much larger than on the current model -- produce even less wind noise. "It has a lot to do with finding the right surface angles."
She showed me an old and a new side mirror. "They may be bigger, but they're better in terms of how little noise they generate. The secret is in using the shape of the mirrors to manage the flow of air as much as possible. We expected to improve on the wind noise of the 2005 model. However, in testing we discovered that the new mirrors actually have a positive effect on air management. They actively prevent wind noise, verified in testing with no side mirrors at all."
Next, frame expert Chris Brewer showed me new noise tuning notches in the front of the sturdy tube-through-tube frame, which, he said, is 63 per cent more resistant to bending and 55 per cent more resistant to twisting than the current model. It's also about 100 cm longer to improve crash safety.
"The frame changes allowed Ford to redesign the suspension for improved quietness and handling," Brewer added.
The independent rear suspension was improved with the use of trailing arms, compared to the current short- and long-arm assembly. The front suspension now has stronger components yet is slightly lighter overall. Mono-tube shocks replace twin-tubes both front and rear to reduce harshness and improve ride control, giving a softer reaction to jolts from potholes and expansion joints.
Not only was this vehicle quiet, it was also the best in handling and smoothest on the rough test course. Some of the competitors, ones with good off-road reputations, actually displayed shockingly sloppy behaviour on the muddy back roads and through the fields.
If you imagined making a movie with a chase scene over such terrain, you'd certainly want to be driving this Explorer.
On regular roads, the new Explorer was almost car-like in the way it handled and rode. Despite its hefty mass (why do they call these things mid-size?), it never felt top-heavy. And its V8 engine was powerful enough to scoot past slower vehicles on the highways with ease. It was even relatively quiet on hard acceleration.
The models tested included Eddie Bauer and Limited versions powered by a 4.6-litre V8 that produces 292 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. Based on the same engine that's in the new Mustang GT, it offers 53 more horsepower than the current Explorer V8. Despite this, fuel economy is slightly better, and it still takes regular fuel.
Also available is an improved 4.0-litre V6 producing 210 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque. Ford claimed it to be cleaner than a Honda Accord Hybrid when it comes to emissions, and said it meets the same tailpipe standard as its own Escape Hybrid. That fact alone may help improve the attitude of tree-huggers toward this SUV.
Transmissions include a five-speed automatic with the V6 and a new six-speed that comes with V8 models. The six-speed I drove was fluid and responsive, with no noticeable sensation of gear changes.
A redesigned ABS brake system helps increase payload by 10 per cent, now up to 690 kg, while towing capacity has been increased to as much as 3,318 kg.
I found the revamped interior design to be exceptionally nice. Ford calls it 'tough luxury.' It looked quite classy for an SUV. I started to like this new Explorer so much that I figured I'd better start nit-picking to find some faults.
After a couple of hours behind the wheel, I can report only one small flaw.
Ford has created an innovative design for the interior door pulls. Using a roll-back mechanism instead of a traditional flip-out handle, the objective was to help reduce injuries in a side-impact crash.
They're very stylish and easy to use -- except for one minor point. If you're parked on a slant and need to hold back the door from swinging wide open, there's no easy way to hang on to it. There's a grab handle below, but you'd have to let go of the door pull and quickly grasp that handle, something that might be hard to do if the door gets away from you unexpectedly, or if a sudden breeze blows it open. On level ground, though, it works fine.
The new Explorer includes 10 advanced safety technologies as standard equipment. "Seven of them are new to the mid-size SUV class," explained crash safety supervisor Jeff Laya. The new model meets all known frontal- and side-impact crash requirements through 2010, he says.
Many of the safety innovations adapt specifically to the size of the driver or passengers.
An optional power-folding, third-row seat also is a first in this segment. The second and third rows fold almost completely flat when equipped with a second-row bench seat. With the seats folded, you also get cavernous cargo capacity, with up to 2,370 litres behind the front seats.
I'm sure current Explorer drivers will be impressed that the new model has raised the bar for all SUVs. It should also make drivers of competitive models -- even high-end marques -- want to take a closer look.
And best of all, the 2006 Explorer is less expensive than the model it will replace in a few weeks. Can it get better than that?
©Bill Roebuck, CarTest.ca 2005.