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After its divorce from Nissan and the demise of the Maverick badged Patrol in 1993, Ford has re-entered the Four Wheel Drive stakes with the fully imported right hand drive version of the American based Explorer, claimed to be the world's best selling four wheel drive.
The Explorer has been released at the height of a very competitive era in the off-road market, particularly in the luxury segment. Being a mid-sized vehicle the strongest competition will be from Prado, Pajero, Jeep and Pathfinder.
Ford is hoping to target the family car buyer with the high level of equipment, close to normal station wagon size and feel, and four wheel drive capabilities. Low entry height, numerous safety features, security, separate tailgate window and good all round vision are all aimed at family motoring.
Three models are available ranging from the XL through to the XLT and the Limited. Prices starting at $41,990 for the XL and peaking at $59,990 for the Limited, are clearly geared around the main opposition Prado. Our road test XLT, with the SOHC V6 auto option, is priced at $49,690.
Features and Equipment
Two engines are featured in the Explorer, a 3997cc OHV (push rod) V6 and a 4011cc SOHC (Single Overhead Cam) V6, making it hard to understand why Ford has chosen to use two engines so close in capacity. The OHV engine is a derivative of the basic North American V6 engine which has been in use for many years and subjected to numerous refinements and upgrades. However, the SOHC engine is a recent development.
The newly developed five speed automatic transmission is a first for this type of vehicle in Australia. Built in Ford's Bordeaux (France) factory, it incorporates electronic technology to add an extra ratio between first and second gear. Overdrive can be locked in or out with a selector lever mounted button.
The Control-Trac four wheel drive system uses an electromagnetic clutch in its transfer case where others use a viscous coupling. Ford claim this provides a faster adaptation to drive traction changes. Essentially the system provides over 90% of drive through the rear wheels on normal roads and when rear wheel slip is sensed (using the ABS sensors), it can supply up to 98% of drive to the front axle, instantly.
A number of safety features have been incorporated in the Explorer with dual front air bags, four wheel disc brakes with ABS, anti submarining front seats, outboard seat belt webbing clamps, adjustable front seat belt upper mountings, cargo tie-down hooks, limited slip rear axle, driving lights and Control-Trac four wheel drive being standard equipment on all models. It is also one of the few four wheel drives to incorporate a controlled collapse rate in the front section of the chassis.
The front suspension is set on double wishbones and torsion bars whilst the rear is a conventional solid axle mounted on leaf springs. Both are substantially supported by anti-roll bars and heavy duty shocks.
Although the equipment level is quite high, there is not much in the way of security except in the top of the line Limited.
Notable options are third row seating for two, Automatic Ride Control suspension, airbag compatible bull bar, roof rack, electrocromatic rear view mirror (darkens in response to headlights) and a CD player.
Body and Finish
The rounded body styling of the Explorer is quite impressive, offering contemporary lines and an unmistakable corporate image.
The plastic fairing over the wheel arches and sills blends with the front and rear bumpers and adds to the vehicle's styling. However, the fairing attachment is proving rather flimsy with some becoming detached during our test.
The window in the rear tailgate opens separately giving access to the rear area without opening the full tailgate.
Central locking operation is strange as I was only able to lock the doors using central locking by pushing the lock button on the front armrest before shutting the door. This of course makes it very easy to lock the keys inside the car.
Comfort and Space
Head and leg room in the cabin area is quite adequate except for the foot well on the driver's side. However, the front seats could do with some more contour on the backs to give better support when cornering.
Although there is plenty of leg and head room in the rear seat positions, the rear seat is very flat and the back of the seat is quite low and not very comfortable.
In contrast with most vehicles, the air conditioner selector switch is incorporated in the same rotary switch that is used for air flow direction. In the normal air conditioner position and all air flow directions, except the direct to face position, the air conditioner compressor will operate automatically providing the outside temperature is above 10 deg. Celsius. In the direct to the face position, fresh air only is directed through the face vents.
This limits the control of conditioned air, and restricts recirculation to the maximum air conditioning position, without the benefit of mixing warm air to obtain the desired temperature.
Luggage space is impressive with almost two metres in length whilst the rear seat is folded down. Minimal storage in the cabin area is available in the medium sized glovebox, centre console compartment and small door pockets.
Behind the Wheel
I did not feel comfortable when I sat behind the wheel of the Explorer. The very large foot rest would not allow my left leg to straighten past a 90 deg. angle and the accelerator was positioned too far forward and at an uncomfortable angle.
The steering wheel rim is very thin by today's standard and lacked a feeling of control that is associated with thicker rimmed wheels.
The instrumentation provided on the XLT model is excellent, with good clear and concise dials for fuel, temperature, oil pressure, battery, speedo and tachometer.
The dash layout is fairly ordinary with conventional positioning of air vents, radio cassette and heater/air conditioner controls.
Left hand turn signal indicator stalks are becoming a common feature with the advent of more European and American vehicles in Australia and I found it fairly easy to adapt with the Explorer as there was no equivalent right hand stalk to confuse the issue.
I found the handbrake lever awkward to operate because the centre console prevented a direct pull on the lever and its travel was excessive. The interior door handles have obviously been positioned to prevent accidental opening. However, I found them very difficult to operate particularly due to the positioning of the inbuilt door pull handle in the armrest. The power adjusted front seats and the tilt adjusting steering column allow the driver to find a fairly comfortable position, in spite of the footwell.
On the Road
It is not surprising, considering the origin of the Explorer, that it is happiest on the open highway. The general atmosphere of the vehicle is conductive to laying the seat back a notch or two, slipping the transmission into overdrive, setting the cruise control to the maximum speed limit, twisting the stereo volume up a little and settling back allowing this vehicle to do what it does best.
I detected some sluggishness particularly when taking off under light to medium throttle and suspect it is in the design of the automatic transmission torque converter. Once the Explorer is on the move the single overhead cam V6 engine is quite responsive, delivering good torque characteristics throughout the normal driving range.
The five speed electronic transmission is certainly equal to anything else on the market at the moment with good clean smooth gear changes and positive selector action.
In spite of its long wheelbase, low centre of gravity, heavy anti-roll bars and heavy duty shock absorbers, the Explorer is only average when it comes to handling ability. The torsion bar front suspension and leaf spring rear suspension do not offer the suppleness and flexibility available with coil sprung four wheel drive vehicles.
Two towing packages are available with the Explorer, a 1587 kg and a 2500 kg pack. Ford has set the maximum towing mass at 2500 kg and ball mass at 10% of the gross trailer mass. The NSW regulations lower the maximum towing mass to 1790-1850 kg dependent on the mass of the individual model.
Off the Road
The Explorer is not a serious four wheel drive package due to its lack of wheel travel, minimal ground clearance and general lack of flexibility. I found it was not very happy in conditions considered medium to seriously off-road and the automatic transmission created a serious lack of engine braking on downhill grades. It also suffered from poor approach and departure angles.
Three four wheel drive positions are provided: 4WD AUTO, where the system decides the amount of drive to each wheel; 4WD HIGH, which supplies full power to the rear and higher continuous power to the front than 4WD AUTO; and 4WD LOW, providing full power to both axles at a lower gear ratio. Shifting into 4WD HIGH and LOW requires the vehicle to be stationary, selector lever in neutral and the footbrake depressed before the appropriate position can be selected.
Bump steer and scuttle shake were common responses when driving the Explorer on uneven surfaces.
In summary it is very easy to get the Explorer hung up on what I considered to be only medium off-road situations.
Service intervals for the Explorer are set at 10,000 km with average service time just under one hour. Spark plugs do not require replacement until the 150,000 km service, thanks to the platinum-tipped plugs fitted. Under the bonnet appears rather cluttered, but most items requiring attention are reasonably accessible.
Three years or 100,000 km warranty applies to the Explorer with a further three years applying to corrosion perforation of the body panels. All owners are entitled to Ford's Prestige Service Plan which provides free roadside assistance and associated benefits for three years.
Although I would not consider the Explorer to be a serious off-road vehicle, its four wheel drive ability would satisfy a large percentage of four wheel drive owners. A considerable amount of work is needed in refining the driving position, upgrading the suspension and ground clearance and some general Australianising of the vehicle before it can become a serious competitor in the mid size four wheel drive market.
So, if you are looking for a reasonable size good looking wagon that cruises well on the open road, is well equipped and has moderate four wheel drive capabilities, the Explorer may well satisfy your requirements.
Test vehicle supplied by Ford Motor Company of Australia Ltd.
|Price of vehicle tested||$59,990|
|Number of cylinders||6|
|Engine size||4.0 L|
|Induction||Electronic multi-point injection|
|Claimed max power (kW)||153 kW @ 5000 rpm|
|Claimed max torque (Nm)||339 Nm @ 3000 rpm|
|Wheel size||7 x 15 "|
|Type||Power rack & pinion|
|Turns to lock||3.2 m|
|Turning circle (measured)||11.9 m|
|Width (including mirrors)||1874 mm|
|Fuel capacity||80 litres|
|Max towed mass (trailer plus load)||1850 kg|
NRMA Theft Rating
|Points on scale 0 - 120 (high score is best)||28|
Acceleration - Test results
|50 - 80km/h||4.2 secs|
|60 - 100km/h||6.3 secs|
|0 - 80km/h||7.1 secs|
|0 - 100km/h||10.7 secs|
|Best recorded during testing||14.8 L/100km|
|Worst recorded during testing||16.2 L/100km|
|Average on test||15.3 L/100km|
|Distance to stop (from 80km/h)||30.9 metres|
|Interior noise at constant 80km/h||66 dB(A)|