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Ford Explorer & Mercury Mountaineer for 2002:

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Rugged and Robust Attitude

The front overhang is reduced slightly, visually and in fact now measures 804 mm. The decreased overhang allows a shorter approach and tighter turns which is significant to true off roaders. The approach angle now is 31 degrees and the turning radius 11.2 meters.

Sweeping front fender wells, that seem firmly connected to the bumper have a bolder, stronger front end appearance. Visually the "signature egg crate grille" (Ford's description, not mine) unites the entire family of Ford SUVs. Jewel-like multi-reflector headlamps add to this rugged appearance and work the best of any Ford truck I've driven with high and low beams that permit safe driving at night, although they aren't the best in class. Every sheet metal panel on the new Explorer is simpler, less cluttered and classically strong.

The Explorer's stance has been improved with a track widened by 2.5 inches (63.5 mm). That grounds it and makes it more solid, while improving handling and reducing the turning circle. The rear is 15 mm higher for a slight rake, and a slightly detectable forward bias.

Explorer's Independent Rear Suspension, of course, is the big news here with all its attendant changes. Ford's "porthole" chassis is fully boxed and is 350 percent stiffer in torsion and lateral and vertical bending improved 26 percent. The body shell is 31 percent stiffer in torsion, and 61 percent better in lateral bending mode. The body is attached to the frame with urethane and rubber body mounts. Softer rubber would carry more noise.

Comparison Shopping

Testing began behind the wheels of the old 2000/2001 Explorers equipped with 5.0 L V-8 engines. My own Explorer is similar, so there was nothing unexpected to consider.

The "pre-pros," (preproduction 2002 models) were a different story. We immediately were shocked and delighted.

The highway ride was far smoother. It had better brake feel. The interior was unbelievably quiet. But there's more to credit than the independent rear suspension.

Starting in the front, there's a new short and long arm (SLA) suspension with coil over dampers to replace the previous torsion bar suspension. According to Ford, it reduces steering wheel shake on rough roads and absorbs longitudinal forces better. Under heavy braking conditions, it also maintains front end ride height better. A SLA suspension also requires less wheel aligning than it would with torsion bar front ends. That, according to Ford estimates, is one of the things that contributes to a 15 percent lower ownership cost.

Damping force can be increased with the stiffer chassis, creating a better ride. The SLA system's upper control arm is aluminum. The lower control arm is stamped out of steel. A urethane-mounted stabilizer bar contributes to better on-center steering feel.

The rear independent suspension is laterally stiffer and more compliant longitudinally if you compare it to the solid axle it replaces. This design - SLA coil over damper - uses an upper control arm of cast aluminum with a lower arm of stamped steel. You can feel the difference in the firmer dampers for a reduction in suspension bounce. The lighter, hollow rear stabilizer bar is urethane mounted to isolate noise.

Making Room for a Real Third Row

Ford's novel porthole-in-frame has welded steel sleeves for strength. It allows for lowering the rear floor 7 inches (177.8 mm) that allows better step-in and leg room, making space for a really usable third row seat. Underneath, half-shafts have unrestricted motion, and overall ground clearance is improved by 25 mm.

Suspension design theory isn't my forte. But I do know I was driving at speeds well over 100 kph on nasty, wet, snow covered back woods dirt roads. My 2000 Explorer, at those speeds, would have launched me into the woods - and quickly. But this was so comfortable that Claudepierre and two other journalists who joined us spent the time talking about air bags.

Now comes the fun part, the vehicle stability control. It won't be here until later in 2001, but this is no half-way system and should be well worth the wait. There are inputs from steering angle, throttle position sensors, lateral accelerometers, yaw sensors, wheel speed sensors, the whole kit. Those, coupled with four wheel ABS and electronic brake distribution, will make SUV driving much safer. Ford has dubbed the system "Advance Trac."

Keeping the Feet on the Floor

Every vehicle will have power assisted rack-and-pinion steering. There's also an adjustable tilt/rake/telescope steering wheel, that's optional on some models. Optional power adjustable steering pedals accommodate shorter drivers.

There's an item I seriously question. That's the steering that is so good, so precise, so light that I fear it will encourage under-trained drivers to think it is a sports car, not a heavy SUV with a high center of gravity. Personally, I like steering with some heft to it, like Mercedes.

Drivetrains on the Explorer are changed. There's more power and a new engine, in addition to transmission and four wheel drive system changes. The major change - swapping the old 5.0 liter push rod V-8 for a modern 4.6 liter SOHC V-8. This all-aluminum motor delivers 240 horsepower (178.0 kW) at 4.750 rpm 280 pound feet of torque at 4.000 rpm (4086.29 Nm.) The torque curve is essentially flat from 1,500 rpm to the 5,000 rpm red line. This is a different engine than Ford has in its F-150 which has a cast iron block and produces less power and torque.

Favoring Fuel Economy

One thing the SOHC engine does well is deliver fuel economy. All of my acceleration and high speed driving tests were done during a trip to Arizona, driving from Sedona to Phoenix. Along the way were 3,000 foot elevation changes. On the highway, I set cruise control on 130 kmh and averaged 16.3 miles per gallon. It won't, at least perceptually, equal the torquey feel of the Chevrolet Vortec engine which has similar displacement.

Explorer's V-6 is an uprated 4.0 L that produces 210 horsepower. That's only 5 less than the old 5.0 L V-8. It boasts an equal length composite plastic intake for quietness. And later next year, V-6 engines for the Explorer will offer flexible fuel capability, with the ability to run on M85, a mix of gasoline and 15 percent methanol. That can reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent.

A third engine is the 2.5L common rail turbo diesel from Detroit Diesel specifically developed for Germany, and also for Portugal and Italy). It's a market necessity for any auto maker selling in Europe. I did not see or drive the diesel version, and Ford wouldn't give me any data on that engine except to say it is state of the art and still under development.


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