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Ford Explorer & Mercury Mountaineer for 2002:

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A Long-Term Trans

Now for the transmissions, a new wide-ratio 5-speed automatic.

It's a mate to all engines and has a lower first gear (3.26 vs. 2.47) for improved launch. The transmission case is a single aluminum casting weighing 44 pounds (19.95 kg.) The new casting reduces NVH, powertrain bending, and carries more torque. Even under severe operating conditions, this sealed transmission shouldn't need servicing for 150,000 miles (241401.6 km). Later this year, a 5-speed manual will be available with the V-6 and should mate to the 2.5 TD.

The three engines - V-6, V-8, and 2.5 TD - are controlled by a new 32-bit engine controller that is more like a Pentium than the old 3286 16-bit microcontroller. It devises combustion strategies for gasoline, diesel, gasoline or the M85 mix. And it controls other functions, such as monitoring transmission shifts to keep them constant in spite of wear.

Ford's Control Trac four-wheel drive system which is shift-on-the-fly, has its own electronic controller. That allows extensive computations: comparing drive shaft speeds and throttle position, determining the torque sent to each axle. The result is seamless adjustment of the transfer case output clutch in automatic, according to Ford. The torque transfer to the front is a maximum of 500 foot-pounds (7296.9 Nm.).

Pushing the Button

Control Trac now uses dashboard push buttons instead of a rotary knob. In its 4x4 Auto mode, the electromechanical clutch transfers torque on heavy throttle or slip. When you accelerate, the controller sends torque to both axles and then samples the result to prevent any wheel spin. In its 4x4 High mode, the system effectively locks the front and rear driveshafts together for traction.

Control Trac can prevent binding in tight turns or when tire inflation is uneven because it is electronic. The sensation is transparent. When you press the drive button, there's no "chunk-chunk" noise from binding front tires and no clunking from the half-shafts even in heavy mud. To shift into Low Range, you shift to neutral and step on the brake.

Explorer's new driveshaft is designed to telescope, not buckle, during impact. It's also lighter, stiffer, and quieter.

With every manufacturer now making vehicles as quiet as a church inside, or as close as possible, Explorer has a solid basis for less noise. It has a stiffer body and frame. Engines are quieter. Transmissions are stiffer and quieter. Even the exhaust was hung at "dead points" along its resonance path so not to transmit noise into the body.

My only testing equipment was ears. No fancy instruments here. But we could always talk without shouting or even lifting our voices, and listen to the radio at a low volume at the same time up to about 150 kmh. That's where the wind noise becomes quite apparent. But it's never as loud as most SUV's are at 120 kmh.

A Little Ersatz Goes a Long, Long Way

Now for the interior - both the good and the bad of it. There are no radical changes, which keeps a familiar appearance, and the control layout is great.

But all the controls are located in a central fascia of fake gray teak, like Lexus', that really looks bad. The less expensive models, with plain colored plastic, look better.

Ford's automatic temperature control divides temperature controls between passenger and driver, and works simply. But the three rotary knobs on the base model were equally effective in keeping driver and passenger comfortable. Ford has done a great job on radio controls for ten years, and these were no different. Controls for the 290-watt, 7-speaker / 90 watt amplified subwoofer, in-dash 6 CD player were simple to use.

One surprise was the lack of a navigation system. We could have used it to find short paths back to base from the deep woods. A first in this class, one especially appealing to women is the adjustable brake and accelerator pedals with a 75 mm travel. It gives shorter drivers the correct driving positioning they've never been able to achieve.

Keeping it Simple

Explorer's instruments are subtly altered from previous models. All Ford trucks, including the Explorer, have some of the most readable gauges ever. Now they're larger and even easier to read with circles and arc segments, white on black, to deliver critical information. The largest guages are the speedometer and tachometer. Battery, oil pressure, fuel and temperature gauges are smaller and have no tiny numbers to slow your understanding.

"Idiot" lights for dangers occupy much of the space, except for the lower right corner. If you look hard, you will find the odometer and trip odometer, plus a compass and the optional information system readout. That shows an array of information such as fuel economy, average speed, engine functions - and Distance to Empty which I especially like.

Now we come to the steering wheel, the right size and shape with functional controls mounted in it. But there could be too many for some driver's comfort, with speed control on the left, plus fan speed, temperature, volume and stereo function controls on the right. I prefer DaimlerChrysler's volume and station controls fitted on the back side of the wheel. While Ford has too many in front, all the controls - in the wheel, on the dash, on the door - light up to make it easy to find them at night.

Because of the new chassis, the interior is 2.5 or 63 mm wider with more shoulder room (75 mm) and more hip room (60 mm). Front seats, equipped with grab handles, are closer to the door which opens very wide.

Well Seated?

Overall, the seats were a disappointment. No one I talked to thought they were even close to being the most comfortable in the class. Wide shoulders will spill over and they don't quite fit your behind if you're small. A rotary control for back support - the best part of the seat - gets in the way of the lower-mounted, power control for fore and aft movement. While no one admitted doing it, the seat heater is very close and could be accidentally switched on. Finally, with the door closed the seat travel switch is difficult to reach.

Second row seats are flexible with a sensible 40/20/40 split. They flip forward with one hand at either side for easy access to the optional third row of seats at either side. With no tunnel, the Explorer's floor is flat, leaving room for third row seating that is first in class for this size SUV. Third row passengers are treated to their own, optional overhead air-conditioning unit.

There is a gritty detail. Unless you've been in hiding, you know about Ford Explorers and their Firestone tires. Ford claims a remarkable safety record for the vehicle when numbers are looked at as injuries per 100,000,000 miles. Even so, the company aims to vastly improve that record. That's where the list of advanced safety features comes in.

First there's the annoying Belt-Minder, with a signal that won't stop until you've fastened your seat belts. There are the normal extensive crush zones and side impact beams and front and side air bags. But more exotic is the Safety Canopy side impact air bag system. It releases only with a side impact and can remain inflated for six seconds, long enough for a vehicle to roll over three times.

Faster than a Blink

Later this year, the side impact Safety Canopy will add rollover protection to monitor vehicle angle and something called the Personal Safety System. It's a tricky setup using dual stage airbags that monitors the driver's seat position and front passenger's weight to adjust individual air bag deployment force. The side airbag curtain, operating independently, essentially covers the side glass area to protect first and second row outboard passengers.

It fully deploys in 40 milliseconds from its headliner storage, less than half the 100 milliseconds it takes you to blink your eyes.

So despite a somewhat similar appearance, the 2002 Explorer is vastly different from current models. Its independent rear suspension lives up to its claims of increased control, improved handling and response, with resistance to harsh road forces. I found that it drives smoothly on any road and maintains a quiet interior.

It actually does redefine the class and I hope my wife doesn't get to try one or we'll have a new vehicle before the old one is paid for. And, I'd have to agree.

- Thom Cannell

Related Articles:
Ford Explorer: A Not So Rocky Road
Ford Explorer: Testing the Limits
Ford Explorer: Taming the Physics of SUV's















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