2002 Ford Explorer Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
All aboard! New Explorer seats seven.The ultimate in versatility.
All new for 2002, the Ford Explorer is better than the previous version in every respect. Handling and ride quality are improved with a new frame and an independent rear suspension. Performance is quicker with new or improved overhead-cam engines. It's a quieter, more refined vehicle with an all-new interior. New safety features are being introduced.
But the biggest news for the Explorer is the availability of third-row seating, allowing it to carry up to seven passengers. It's roomier and more comfortable, benefits of its longer wheelbase, wider track and some clever engineering.
In spite of all this, the new Explorer looks familiar inside and out. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. In all likelihood, the Ford Explorer will continue to be America's most popular station wagon. Ford Explorer Sport Track offers the comfort of an Explorer sport-utility with the hauling capability of a short-bed pickup truck.
The Sport Trac is basically an SUV with a pickup truck bed grafted to its tail. The Ford Explorer has been the best selling of all sport-utility vehicles. The Sport Trac is based on the previous-generation Explorer, so it does not benefit from the new Explorer's independent rear suspension and other advancements. But it's a nice design with an outdoorsman's interior, and offers the utility of a thoughtfully designed pickup bed for large, and dirty, cargo.
Four trim levels are available: XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer, Limited. XLS and XLT come standard with cloth; Eddie Bauer and Limited come with leather.
An overhead-cam V6 engine is now standard on all models, boosting the Explorer's power considerably. A new overhead-cam V8 ($695) is optional on all models. All trim levels offer a choice of two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive models.
XLS ($24,020) comes with cloth upholstery, a high level of standard equipment, and a five-speed manual transmission. Ford's new five-speed automatic transmission ($1095) is optional. Four-wheel drive adds $1800. XLS does not offer some of the high-zoot options available on the other models, including the V8.
XLT ($27,780) gets nicer sport cloth upholstery, a six-way power driver's seat, body-colored exterior trim, a CD stereo instead of cassette, and more interior features, such as a temperature gauge and compass, map lights and dome lights, outside approach lighting, extra power outlets, illuminated keypad for keyless entry. The new five-speed automatic transmission is standard, and aluminum alloy wheels replace steel wheels. Four-wheel drive adds $1965. Leather upholstery with a six-way power driver's seat is available for $655.
Limited and Eddie Bauer models (both $34,055) come with leather seating surfaces, automatic dual-zone climate control, a 290-watt six-CD stereo with six speakers, adjustable power pedals, fog lights, and wider tires. Six-way adjustable heated power seats with dual manual lumbar supports are used in front, and the driver's seat has a three-position memory feature. Four-wheel drive adds $1965.
The top two Explorer models differ only in their distinctive trim: Eddie Bauer comes with Arizona beige bumpers, moldings, lower bodyside cladding, and satin-nickel wheels and grille. Limited uses monochromatic bumpers, moldings and cladding with a silver grille and special wheels; there's also a white pearl coat Limited that uses frost accents.
Third-row seating ($670), auxiliary air conditioning ($610), running boards ($395), Reverse Sensing System ($255), and power moonroof ($800) are options available on all models. A Trailer Towing Prep Package ($395) replaces the Class II hitch (standard) with a Class III hitch, and adds a 3.73 limited-slip rear axle and other hardware.
Front side-impact (side curtain) airbags ($495) are optional, which are designed to protect front and second-row occupants. Dual front airbags are standard. Anti-lock brakes are standard. Seatbelts use retractors and pretensioners designed to reduce injuries in a hard crash. The second-row center seat offers only a lap belt rather than the preferred shoulder harness, however.
Significant safety improvements will be added as a running change to the 2002 model shortly before the beginning of calendar year 2002. The headliner is a new safety canopy (that replaces the side curtain airbags) designed to protect occupants during a rollover in addition to protecting them from a side impact by staying inflated for a much longer period of time. Smarter airbags, Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability program, power-adjustable pedals, and a telescoping steering wheel will also be added near the end of 2001. There's no obvious way to tell whether an Explorer has this new set of features, so you'll need to check with the dealership regarding their availability. Ford Explorer Sport Trac comes in two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive models. Three equipment packages are available: Value, Choice, and Premium.
The 2WD Value ($22,040) and 4WD Value ($24,810) versions come with a long list of standard equipment. Value packages actually give the buyer a credit over the base models by deleting the five-speed automatic transmission, leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote keyless entry, cruise control, and a tilt steering column.
Make Choice your choice and you get cruise control, power door locks, a more powerful version of the 4.0-liter V6 engine, remote keyless entry, a tilting steering column and an automatic transmission. Choice 2WD ($23,880) and Choice 4WD ($26,650) versions are considered the base models.
Pick the Premium package ($1560) and you get a 4.10 axle, floor and overhead consoles, fog lights, captains chairs with six-way power for the driver's seat, step bars to ease entry and exit from the cabin and upgraded tires.
For 2002, all Explorer Sport Tracs get 16-inch alloy wheels (instead of the old 15-inch versions). There's also a new 23-gallon fuel tank that replaces the 20.5-capacity tank in the 2001 model.
No one should have any trouble identifying the new Ford Explorer. Everything on it is new, but the styling is an evolutionary design. It still looks like an Explorer, just fresher and more contemporary. Ford didn't want to take any risks with the Explorer's design after the styling of the previous Taurus was so roundly criticized. It's a handsome vehicle and it looks contemporary. Just don't expect people to stop, turn and stare when you drive by.
Modern integrated front and rear fascia replace the previous bumper treatments. New jeweled headlamps and tail lamps improve safety. Better perimeter lighting from approach lights mounted on the bottoms of the outside mirrors enhances security. Uplevel models come standard with an illuminated keypad on the door for keyless entry. Ford says it's a popular feature among loyal owners. A beefed up roof rack was designed to support up to 200 pounds.
While the new Explorer attracted little attention, the new Mountaineer caused people in parking lots to stop and point; people on the highway would look at it as they passed by, then stare in their mirrors.
The new Explorer is the same overall length and the previous model, but it sits on a (two-inch) longer wheelbase and a much wider track, making it more stable and more comfortable. Lowered frame rails mean the front and rear of the Explorer matches up to a Taurus bumper for improved safety for those around you. Visually, the 2002 Ford Sport Trac is not very smooth. It has a rugged, utilitarian look with chunky gray cladding along the sides, and bulges along the body. Sport Trac looks like a box, twice over. First, there's the five-seat cabin and then there's the bed, whose walls are nearly 20 inches high. Overall, it's high and bulky looking.
The cargo bed is just over four feet long and the entire bed is made of a seemingly indestructible composite material, so it does not need a liner and won't rust. Ford engineers say they dragged cinder blocks over it and threw in steel pipes and heavy angle iron without any appreciable damage. Any marring of the bed blends in with the black grained finish. Ten winged cargo hooks are sturdily mounted on the rails of the bed, six black ones on the outside and four on the inside; there's also a waterproof 12-volt power source in the cargo area, useful for power tools and even refrigerators.
An optional bed extender is available, a hinged stainless-steel tube-frame that flips back to the edge of the dropped tailgate, increasing the bed length to 72 inches. When it's in position inside the bed, it creates a compartment 25 by 45 inches and can securely contain bags of groceries and keep other small cargo from sliding around. It's removable, but it takes too much fiddling to get it out and back in. There's also an optional lockable hard tonneau cover, which is two-piece, foldable and lightweight, and there is an optional plastic bed divider available.
The standard roof rack consists of just two longitudinal bars, with the crossbars sold as an option, but they are necessary if you want to carry anything up there. The lack of crossbars severely limits the things you could otherwise easily strap on. Without the crossbars, we carried a nine-foot-long duffel bag full of sailing gear, and had to flop it right down on the roof.
The Sport Trac is built on a lengthened Explorer frame and has increased lateral stiffness, a tubular crossmember and thicker side rails. Urethane body mounts are used to smooth the ride.
Though everything inside the Explorer is new, our Eddie Bauer felt familiar, with the familiar beige steering wheel, the familiar pinhole leather seating material. Light-colored trim on the inside A-pillars and grab handle add to a light, airy atmosphere. It's a successful execution, though the mouse fur roof liner is nothing to write home about. Leather on the Eddie Bauer model is attractive, but it seems like they could have put leather on the visible inside edge of the seat bottom. We've only glimpsed the cloth and weren't overly impressed, but it may have been a base XLS model.
Handsome gray wood accents, adjustable pedals, a telescoping steering wheel (CY2002), and increased seat travel make the Explorer fit a wider variety of body types. Big coat hooks accommodate thick hangers and big loads of dry cleaning. Nicely designed cubby holes with rubber mats and a relatively large center console help keep odds and ends in check. Interior door handles seem a bit awkward, though, especially on the driver's door; I found myself fumbling around for it at night. Map pockets on the insides of the doors are handy and swell at the end to hold water bottles, but they wouldn't accommodate my one-liter Poland Springs water bottle.
The front seats are comfortable. They are wider and offer more fore-and-aft travel than before. Seat heaters are part of the Eddie Bauer way of living. They keep you warm while the truck is still heating up. The buttons for them are mounted on the sides of seats, which is a bit awkward. Reaching down the side of the driver's seat, the left hand is confronted with an array of seat adjusters. Finding and pressing the seat heater button illuminates a small indicator for each seat on the climate control display. Your passenger will fumble around a bit the first time he or she tries to turn it on. Likewise, it isn't always easy to find the height adjuster. Rake is easy to adjust and there's a knob on the uplevel seats for cranking in some lumbar support.
The decision to add a third row of seating drove much of the design and engineering of the 2002 Explorer. As a result, Ford has done an excellent job of making the third row as roomy as possible, while enabling the driver to quickly flip it out of the way when it isn't needed.
The third row offers as much headroom as the second row, but legroom, shoulder room and hip room are significantly compromised. After flipping the second-row seat neatly out of the way, you can climb back there, fold the second-row seat back into position and slide your feet underneath, which provides somewhat tolerable legroom. It isn't comfortable for an adult, however. There's little shoulder room, and the third-row bench is a bit hard on the outboard edge; it pushes you away from the outboard side toward the center. It'll work okay for small children, but if you need six- or seven-passenger seating on a regular basis you may want to consider a Windstar.
Also, there's not much room in back for groceries or other items when the third row is in place. When cargo space is needed, simply squeeze a lever and lightly push the third row forward. With some practice, it's possible to unlock the rear hatch, open it, and flip the third row out of the way with one hand, which is important when juggling an armload of groceries. The third-row bench folds neatly into the foot well. Well, maybe not so neatly.
The downside here is that the cargo floor is not flat in seven-passenger Explorers. Neither the second nor the third rows fold perfectly flat. So the floor slopes back toward the rear hatch. A sliding cover bridges the gap between the two folded seats, but you could still lose small items through the cracks. The sloping floor took Caesar, the 140-pound English mastiff, aback at first, but he quickly adjusted to it; the sliding panel made a popping noise when he stood on it, but that may have been because it wasn't fully deployed. (Be sure to fold all the seats down to see what we're. Sport Trac's cabin is durable. The flooring is made of a textured composite rubber easily swept with a Wisk broom or cleaned with water. Door panels are resilient plastic. Cloth is only found on the seats and headliner. The rest is ready for mud. The rubber flooring under the removable Berber carpet floor mats offers enhanced sound insulation.
Optional leather seating ($655) includes leather low-back seats with adjustable head restraints, six-way power driver's seat, and manual lumbar adjustment for the front seats.
The front seats are nicely contoured and quite comfortable. We weren't crazy about the looks of the dark brown gabardine seats at first, but they kind of grew on us. We prefer the lighter shade. The seat material appears to be easy to clean.
The rear seats are roomy. Rear legroom is ample at 37.8 inches, a full seven inches more than the Nissan Frontier. The back seat also contains three child seat tether anchors, standard. The rear seats split and fold down without having to remove the headrests, which quickly provides cargo space inside the cabin.
Big fixed cup holders in front, forward of the armrest, add convenience, along with a little slot good for coins and tickets. Forward of that is another tray with two more slots, one of them fairly big.
The removable nylon pack under the center armrest was curious. It enables you to carry your console contents with you. It even has a shoulder strap. But it gives up function that would exist if it were fixed. It was awkward when in place, and as a result we never used the compartment because we didn't want to deal with first raising the armrest, then lifting a limp material top secured by Velcro.
A power rear window slides up and down, either slightly for flow-through ventilation or all the way down, which the kids in the back seat will love. Back-seat passengers can reach through to grab things out of the bed, such as drinks from a cooler.
A digital compass with outside temperature gauge over the rearview mirror is a highly useful and appreciated tool that more carmakers should fit in their vehicles, especially any vehicle that may head into the backcountry. We noticed it was a long reach to the emergency brake release.
Ford is trying hard with big-ticket engineering details, an area where the company excels. A lot of effort went into reducing the noise level in the cabin, successfully.
Our first impression of the new Explorer was that it offers substantial refinement over the previous version, which feels like a buckboard wagon by comparison. Ride quality and handling are greatly improved, benefits of the Explorer's new frame, chassis and suspension system. New engines give it more power for acceleration and towing, and the four-wheel-drive system gets more refined every year. It's still a truck, though. Tire whir is heard; road vibration is felt.
Technical stuff: While the previous Explorer used an independent front suspension with torsion bars and a live rear axle, the new one benefits from a four-wheel independent suspension with coil springs at all four corners. But it goes well beyond that. When Ford redesigned the Explorer, its first decision was to add the third row. There wasn't enough room in the previous model for the seats and there wasn't enough space below the cargo floor to fold them down. Stretching the wheelbase provided some space for the seats. (The overall length of the Explorer remains the same.) Replacing the old live rear axle with an independent rear suspension provided room to lower the floor. A clever porthole designed into the frame allows the half shafts to pass through the frame rails instead of beneath them. While these changes allowed Ford to add the third row, a big side benefit is improved handling and ride quality. The new frame is fully boxed front to rear, providing a far more rigid platform, which allows the engineers to more precisely tune the suspension. The independent rear suspension offers better lateral stiffness, yet more fore/aft compliance than a live rear axle. Up front, Coil springs replace the old torsion bars for better bump absorption.
As a result, the Explorer delivers a smoother ride on rough roads, and it handles better on winding roads. It's very stable at high speeds and feels comfortably secure in bad weather. Running over bumpy surfaces in the middle of a corner doesn't upset the handling, though it is still a truck.
One thing Ford learned from the massive Firestone tire recall was to offer a selection of tires. Depending on trim level, Explorer buyers can now choose among Goodyears, Michelins, and Firestones. Sixteen-inch wheels are now standard with P235/70R16 tires standard, slightly wider P245/70R16s on Eddie Bauer and Limited models.
Off road, the Ford Explorer has never measured up to the competition and the 2002 model doesn't really change that. There are improvements, however. Ground clearance is increased by an inch and shorter front and rear overhangs provide better approach and departure angles, which means you don't scrape the ground as much as before.
About 60 percent of Explorer buyers will opt for 4WD. Explorer's optional Control Trac four-wheel-drive system works great. Our 2002 Explorer offered surprisingly good grip on a muddy, snow-covered two-track in the Arizona high country near Sedona. Ford has refined this system to make it more transparent to the driver, while improving its abilities in limited traction situations. The normal driving mode is Auto 4WD (there is no two-wheel-drive mode.) In Auto 4WD, Control Trac directs the power front to rear according to input from sensors that compare grip between front and rear wheels. If the rear wheels lose traction, the optimal amount of torque is transferred to the front. Using a new, dedicated controller, the system checks for slipping tires 50 times a second and can anticipate situations that are likely to cause the wheels to spin, such as hard acceleration.
Pressing a button shifts the system into 4WD Hi, which effectively locks the front and rear drive shafts together. This can be useful for severe off-road or winter conditions, though Auto 4WD does such a great job of transferring torque that it may be irrelevant in practical terms. Driving on a muddy, primitive trail, I couldn't tell the difference between Auto 4WD and 4WD Hi. It may be possible to detect subtle s. Sport Tracs come with Ford's 205-horsepower 4.0-liter V6. It's a sophisticated engine, with overhead-cams, and an aluminum head and pistons. It likes to rev, and it's smooth, responsive and great fun at speed. The 237 foot-pounds of torque come way up there at 4000 rpm, and 203 horsepower is produced at 5250 rpm, with redline at 6250. But that fun you're having at speed will have to come in the lower gears; at 75 mph the engine cruises at a mere 2650 rpm. That's with the standard 3.73 final drive rear axle ratio. The optional 4.10 rear-axle ratio with a limited-slip differential ($355) would allow the engine to better do its thing, although at the expense of gas mileage. The higher-numerical 4.10 rear end also improves performance for towing.
With five speeds in the transmission, we were surprised by how far the tach needle jumped when the transmission kicked down, as more gears mean closer ratios. Once, we were hauling uphill on the freeway at 70, working around a semi-rig, and when the tranny kicked down, evidently from fourth to third, the rpm lunged to more than 5000, then back to 3500 when it upshifted again. But overall, the transmission matched the engine for smoothness and sophistication. You do get quality Ford engineering, here.
The four-wheel-drive system can be shifted on the fly between two- and four-wheel drive. A low-range mode is ready for heavy snow, deep mud or soft sand.
To make the Sport Trac, Ford lengthened the Explorer's frame more than 14 inches to 206 inches on a 126-inch wheelbase. An Explorer's suspension and drive train isn't Ford Tough like the big Super Duty pickups, but Ford reinforced the frame for greater rigidity and tuned the suspension to improve its off-road performance. Payload is up to 1,500 pounds with a 5,040-pound towing capacity.
The Sport Trac is quite tall, so it doesn't handle like a car. There is some weave and pitch, sway and jounce. It's not heavy, but the rougher the road and the higher the speed, the stronger it gets. The bushings, spring rates, shock valving and stabilizer bars have been modified, according to Ford, for improved ride, handling, and noise/vibration/harshness over the Explorer. The power rack-and-pinion steering did not provide as much assist as we would have liked for parallel parking in tight places.
The Sport Trac comes with bigger brake rotors than the previous-generation Explorer, using ventilated discs in front and drums in the rear. The brakes slowed and stopped the Sport Trac okay.
Ford's 2002 Explorer is a vast improvement over the previous model in every respect. Whether it's the best vehicle in this crowded class is subject to debate, but it's a well-engineered vehicle. It handles well, rides smoothly and the interior packaging is well thought out and, for the most part, well executed.
Dodge Durango is the only other SUV in this class with third-row seating. We find the optional third rows in both of these vehicles to be uncomfortable. Regardless, the Explorer is the more refined of the two. Ford Explorer Sport Trac is an innovative design packed with small innovations that make life in town and in the backcountry more convenient. The solid strengths of the 2002 Ford Sport Trac, the engine, frame, chassis and body, for example, make for an impressive sport-utility truck.
2WD: XLS ($24,020); XLT ($27,780); Eddie Bauer ($32,090); Limited ($32,090)
4WD: XLS ($25,900); XLT ($29,745); Eddie Bauer ($34,055); Limited ($34,055). 4x2 ($23,880); 4x4 ($26,650).
Louisville, Kentucky; St. Louis, Missouri. Louisville, Kentucky.
Options As Tested
Front Side Impact Air Bags ($495); auxiliary air conditioning ($610). Cloth Comfort Group ($935) includes cloth front bucket seats with six-way power driver seat, high-series floor console with rear climate and audio controls, overhead console with outside temperature display and compass; Convenience Group ($750) includes autolock, remote keyless entry, cruise control, tilt steering column, leather-wrapped steering wheel; cargo cage ($195).
Explorer 4WD Eddie Bauer ($34,055). Sport Trac Choice 4x4 ($26,650).
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