2003 Ford Explorer Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The modern American wagon.
The Ford Explorer is one of the best sport-utilities in its class. Redesigned and re-engineered last year, the Explorer is a much better vehicle than the previous-generation Explorer.
It offers a more solid stance than before, with a longer wheelbase and a wider track. A stiffer frame and a fully independent suspension provide superior ride and handling on road and off road. Its V6 was revised last year and a V8 was added as an option. Both are available with a superb five-speed automatic. It's roomy, capable of seating seven people when equipped with the optional third row that folds flat into the cargo floor when not being used.
For 2003, Ford added more standard equipment and important new options. Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability system is available for improved traction and safety, along with a rear-seat DVD system.
Ford Explorer is available in four trim levels: XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited. XLS and XLT come standard with cloth upholstery; Eddie Bauer and Limited come trimmed in leather.
An overhead-cam V6 engine is standard on all models. An overhead-cam V8 ($800) is an option for all models except the XLS. All trim levels offer a choice of two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive.
XLS ($25,970) comes with cloth upholstery, a center console with a storage bin and cup holders, and a five-speed manual transmission. Ford's new five-speed automatic transmission ($1095) is optional and we highly recommend it. Four-wheel drive adds $1880. XLS comes a high level of standard equipment, including a new AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo, but it does not offer some of the high-zoot options available on the other models, including the V8. An $1150 Sport Group for the XLS adds the premium center console, step bars, body-color metallic wheel lip moldings, and 16-inch aluminum wheels.
XLT ($28,745) gets nicer sport cloth upholstery, a six-way power driver's seat, body-colored exterior trim, and more luxury features, such as a temperature gauge and compass, map lights and dome lights, outside approach lighting, extra power outlets, and an illuminated keypad for keyless entry. An upgraded console offers a tissue box, power points, pencil holder, and coin holder in addition to cup holders and a storage bin. The five-speed automatic transmission is standard, and aluminum alloy wheels replace steel wheels. New for 2003 are a chrome grille and black-grain outside door handles. Four-wheel drive adds $1965. Leather upholstery with a six-way power driver's seat is available for $655. XLT buyers can choose a $900 Sport Group consisting of 17-inch machined aluminum wheels, step bars, and special wheel lip moldings.
Eddie Bauer ($32,670) and Limited ($33,695) models come with leather seating surfaces, automatic dual-zone climate control, a 290-watt six-CD stereo with six speakers, 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, satin-nickel wheels and grille, and P245/65R17 all-terrain tires. Limited uses monochromatic bumpers, moldings and cladding with a silver grille and unique wheels; the Limited model is available in white pearl-coat paint with frost accents.
Options for all models except XLS include third-row seating ($670), auxiliary air conditioning ($610), running boards ($395), power adjustable pedals ($120), Reverse Sensing System ($255), and power moonroof ($800). 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, engine oil cooler, and other relevant hardware.
Instead of conventional front side-impact airbags, Explorer offers an optional ($560) safety canopy in the headliner designed to protect occupants during a rollover. The canopy also promises improved side-impact protection by staying inflated for a much longer period of time. Ford has done a great deal of research on this technology and we strongly recommend ordering the safety canopy. Dual front airbags are standard, and feature smart technology that adjusts their inflation rate according to the severity of the accident. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are standard on all models; ABS allows the driver to brake and steer at the same time in a panic stop. Seatbelts use retractors and pre-tensioners 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. This newest Explorer achieved a 4-star driver/5-star front-passenger ratings in the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration front crash tests.
The current Ford Explorer is the same length overall as the pre-2002 models, but it rides on a longer wheelbase (by 2 inches) and a much wider track. Pushing the wheels out toward the corners makes the Explorer more stable and more comfortable. Lowered frame rails keep its front and rear bumpers at about the same height as those of a Ford Taurus, improving safety for the non-SUV drivers around you. All new last year, this Explorer shares only its name with the pre-2002 models involved in the Firestone tire recall.
The Explorer's styling is fresh, contemporary. It looks solid and handsome. Smoothly integrated front and rear fascia are used in place of the traditional bumper treatments. Jeweled headlamps and tail lamps give it a sophisticated look. Yet this newly designed Explorer clearly evokes the previous-generation Explorer. No one will have trouble identifying it. Few will notice it at all. Don't expect people to turn and stare when you drive by. Turning heads is not always our objective, however, and the more time we have spent with the Explorer the more its looks have grown on us.
Approach lights are mounted on the bottoms of the outside mirrors, which enhance security and convenience. I dropped something next to the curb while getting out of the Explorer one dark night; hitting the button on the key fob illuminated the approach lights and I immediately spotted it. Uplevel models come standard with an illuminated keypad on the door for keyless entry. The keypad doesn't improve the appearance of the Explorer, but Ford says it's a popular feature among loyal owners.
The standard roof rack is designed to support up to 200 pounds. For messier cargo, there's a new NBX package ($1110), which includes a Yakima multi-use LoadWarrior cargo basket, special black exterior trim, special seat cloth, and 17-inch machined aluminum wheels mounted with B.F. Goodrich Rugged Trail T/A P245/65R17 tires.
The Ford Explorer is a comfortable vehicle on long trips. The Eddie Bauer seats were comfortable throughout nine-hour driving stints on a 2,700-mile cross-country trip. Convenience features abound that make it pleasant while driving and when stopping. The six-disc in-dash CD player sounds good and is easy to operate, with large, clearly marked controls; it worked very well for books on CD, which take up multiple discs, as I could quickly rewind to replay passages missed while concentrating on driving.
If you're familiar with older Explorers, you'll find the current models new yet familiar. The Eddie Bauer model comes with the traditional beige steering wheel and pinhole leather seating material. Handsome gray wood accents lend a luxurious appearance. 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. The leather upholstery is attractive, and you might think that Ford could have stitched it all the way around to the inside edge of the seat bottom. We found the cloth seats in the XLT comfortable, firm and supportive, with lots of adjustments.
Adjustable pedals, a telescoping steering wheel and long seat travel help the Explorer fit a wide variety of body types. Big coat hooks accommodate thick hangers and big loads of dry cleaning, something few manufacturers get right. Nicely designed cubby holes with rubber mats provide space for wallet, sunglasses, a pen, cans, and bottles. A relatively large center console keep odds and ends in check. Interior door handles seem a bit awkward at first, but that went away with familiarization. Map pockets on the insides of the doors are handy and swell at the end to hold water bottles, but wouldn't accommodate my one-liter bottle from Poland Springs. The front power outlet was positioned well for a cell phone, but like most, was a bit of a reach for a radar detector. The trip computer came in handy, calculating the distance to an empty fuel tank.
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. But the buttons that control them are mounted on the sides of seats, which is a bit awkward. Reaching down to 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 is a challenge. When you succeed, however, a small indicator lights up on the climate-control display. Your passenger will fumble around a bit the first time he or she tries to turn it on, also. Likewise, it isn't always easy to find the height adjuster. But rake is easy to adjust, and there's a knob on the up-level seats for cranking in some lumbar support.
The second row of seats, the row we recommend for those who didn't get to drive or sit up front, is quite comfortable. Sliding your feet under the front seats increases legroom.
The decision to add a third row of seating drove much of the design and engineering of the current Explorer. As a result, Ford has done an excellent job of making the third row as roomy as possible, while making it flip quickly 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 seat itself 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 to carry six or seven adults on a regular basis, you may want to consider a Windstar or an Expedition.
It's smooth and stable on the highway and handles well on winding roads. The V8 engine offers excellent acceleration out of corners. The current Explorer offers substantial refinement over the previous (pre-2002) version, which rides like a buckboard wagon by comparison. Ride quality and handling were greatly improved, benefits of the Explorer's new frame, chassis and suspension system.
The Explorer now rides on a four-wheel independent suspension with coil springs all around. It's a sophisticated setup and it works very well. (Crude by comparison, the previous Explorer used torsion bars in front and a live rear axle on leaf springs.) The independent rear suspension offers better lateral stiffness yet more fore/aft compliance than a live rear axle. That means both ride and handling will be better.
The Explorer delivers a smoother ride on rough roads, and it handles better on winding roads. Bumpy corners doesn't upset its handling and it feels good in sweeping corners. The Explorer is very stable at high speeds and feels comfortably secure in bad weather. I felt safe and confident while pulling a trailer all day through Tropical Storm Isidore, running the length of Tennessee and into Arkansas. Just knowing it had had Auto 4WD and ABS was comforting when it was raining buckets. It's still a truck, though. Tire whir is heard; road vibration is felt. But the ride is more comfortable, less jouncy than, say, the Nissan Pathfinder.
Off road, the Explorer has never measured up to the Toyota 4Runner or Land Rover Discovery, and the new generation doesn't change that. The Explorer is not designed to tackle the Rubicon Trail or any other seriously rugged terrain. The current Explorer is better than the old one, however, and it is perfectly capable for off-highway driving on primitive roads. Ground clearance is increased by an inch over the previous Explorer, and shorter front and rear overhangs offer better approach and departure angles, all of which means you don't scrape the ground as much as before. If primitive roads and deep snow are the extent of your off-road driving, then the Explorer will serve admirably.
About 60 percent of Explorer buyers opt for 4WD, and the optional Control Trac four-wheel-drive system works great. We were surprised by the amount of grip the Explorer held 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 power according to input from sensors that compare grip between the front and rear wheels. If the rear wheels lose traction, for example, the optimal amount of power is transferred to the front tires where there's more grip. Using a dedicated controller, the system checks for slipping tires 50 times a second and can anticipate situations, such as hard acceleration, that are likely to cause the wheels to spin. It feels secure on wet pavement, gravel, mud, and snow.
When the going gets rougher, press the 4WD HI button, which effectively locks the front and rear driveshafts together. This can be useful for severe off-road or winter conditions, though Auto 4WD does such a great job of transferring torque that 4WD HI is almost 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 slip in Auto 4WD on slippery, snow-covered surfaces, but the bottom line is that you can leave it in Auto 4WD for all but the worst conditions. 4WD Low works well for creeping over truly rugged terrain. We found it does a good job of engine braking down steep grades, and we suspect it would be helpful on slippery boat ramps.
Optional AdvanceTrac takes four-wheel drive to another level with a sophisticated traction system that adds stability by regula.
The Ford Explorer has been America's best-selling SUV for 11 years. It helped usher in the era of the sport-utility as a family car, and was the first SUV to break into the list of the 10 best-selling vehicles in America, muscling into No. 7 position in 1991. The 5-millionth Explorer rolled off the Louisville assembly line in mid-September (2002). The man who bought it has owned three Explorers before.
You can't go wrong buying a 2003 Ford Explorer. Redesigned last year, the new 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 you could certainly argue that. It competes neck-and-neck for that title with the superb new entries from GM and the new 2003 Toyota 4Runner. The Explorer rides smoothly, handles well, and the interior packaging is well thought out and executed. It's a great vehicle for long trips. Comfortable and convenient, it quickly becomes an old friend.
2WD: XLS ($25,970); XLT ($28,745); Eddie Bauer ($32,670); Limited ($33,695)
4WD: XLS ($27,845); XLT ($30,710); Eddie Bauer ($34,635); Limited ($35,660)
Louisville, Kentucky; St. Louis, Missouri.
Options As Tested
4.6-liter V8 engine ($800); Safety Canopy air curtain system ($560); auxiliary air conditioning ($610); Reverse Sensing System ($255); third-row seat package ($670); running boards ($395); Class III/IV trailer package ($395); 290-watt audio with six-disc in-dash CD ($510).
Explorer Eddie Bauer AWD ($34,635).
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