2006 Ford Explorer
2006 Ford Explorer Expert Review:Autoblog
"All dressed up and nowhere to go" might best describe the situation in which the 2006 Ford Explorer found itself when it appeared in showrooms last year. The not-quite "all new" model had donned a new sheetmetal suit to attract suitors, and underneath the skin it received upgrades that improved the power, fuel economy and refinement of this SUV all-star.
Despite critics heaping praise on the new Explorer, it's being stood up by consumers. Though Ford had hoped the 2006 model would lift the SUV’s sagging sales in 2005, the year ended with 99,545 fewer Explorers sold than in 2004, a drop of 29.3 percent.
What happened? Why has this SUV archetype begun to fall out of favor with the very suburban clientele that made it a sales superstar? We’ll examine why in our three-part review of the 2006 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer 4X4, beginning after the jump.
A drop in sales of 29.3 percent may sound like a death rattle to some, but nearly all of Ford’s vehicles saw double digit declines in 2005, and the Explorer still maintained its comfy spot as the brand’s No. 2 best-selling vehicle (behind the unbeatable F-150). Though the Explorer’s sales continued to drop even after the 2006 model was introduced, we’re fairly certain things would’ve been much worse had this redesign not taken place.
Nearly everything about the Explorer has been improved for 2006. In fact, the exterior refreshening is the least significant item on the list. While the changes made to the vehicle’s appearance are innocuous enough, the new chrome grille is much taller than before-- almost Audi-like in how the chrome plunges down, swallowing the air intake. Its vertical height has the uncomfortable effect, however, of making the Explorer look thinner and taller from the front than last year’s model.
This Explorer, however, deserves more kudos for what’s new underneath its metal than how it’s shaped. For instance, the first V8 in an Explorer happened to be the Mustang’s fabled 5.0 and Ford has again borrowed from its pony car parts bin to produce this Explorer’s new 292-hp, 4.6L V8. The muscle car motor has been tuned more for towing here than time slips, and it's mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission that’s nearly invisible in its operation. The new driveline can be given credit for an improvement in fuel economy, as well, which is up to 14 city/20 highway. On a 400-mile trip with the Explorer during our first few days together we saw an average in the mid-17 mpg range.
The Explorer’s all-independent suspension has also been retuned for 2006, specifically the rear. The new setup is a definite improvement that further blurs the line between body-on-frame and unibody SUVs. During our roadtrip the Explorer excelled at providing a serene ride at highway speeds, aided further by Ford’s efforts at reducing noise inside the cabin.
An all-new interior also awaits a new Explorer owner, and it’s obvious from the first touch that the SUV’s inner sanctum is now more a place of luxury than labor. Our model is equipped with Ford’s second-gen DVD nav system that so far has safely delivered us into and out of the interior of Pittsburgh’s skyline. We’ll return to the Explorer’s new interior in our second post, but for now suffice it to say that we’ve felt coddled and well protected while piloting this SUV.
The question still stands as to why the Ford Explorer’s sales have fallen so sharply despite the improvements made in the 2006 model. As you’ll read throughout our review it’s becoming clear that the SUV market is fragmenting, and a new segment filled with CUVs (crossover utility vehicles), is beginning to make a name for itself. These vehicles that are essentially built on car platforms offer smoother rides, improved fuel economy, and in some cases more flexible functionality than their truck-based brethren. Consumers who have succumbed to the negative image with which traditional SUVs have been branded are taking a look at CUVs, which for the moment are being marketed as easier-on-the-conscience alternatives.
Is there a place for old stalwarts like the Ford Explorer in this new market landscape? Despite some of the disadvantages of being related to a pickup truck, there are still advantages not the least of which is towing. The 2006 Explorer can actually tow 160 lbs. more than last year’s model, which means you can now hitch 7,300 lbs. up to it. For comparison, the Nissan Murano can only carry 3,500 lbs. on its back.
There’s still a market for SUVs that can do some dirty work when called upon, so we don’t expect the Explorer to outright leave showrooms anytime soon. The SUV market, however, is in flux, and when the dust settles we’re more likely to this the new crop of CUVs leading in sales.
That being said, we still have a lot to discuss about the new 2006 Ford Explorer and we plan to shed light on what it has to offer in the face of all these up and coming crossovers, which coincidentally include the new Edge that will be joining Ford’s SUV lineup this year. Vehicles like the Edge may be lighter, cheaper and faster than this original SUV vanguard, but our time with the Explorer so far seems to indicate that it's settling into its new role as an executive SUV quite nicely.
One great thing about the way we review vehicles is that we get to read all of your comments and address some of them in the second and third parts of our reviews. Russell left a particularly enlightening comment in our first post on the 2006 Ford Explorer that sums up many of our feelings on the 2006 Explorer: “As the number of different models in the market continues to proliferate, vehicles like the jack of all trades Explorer become more focused; in this case, on the powerful psuedo luxurious tow/haul niche. It'll never sell in the volumes it used to and I think that's in large part by Ford's own choosing.”
We couldn’t have said that better ourselves, and as evidence we’d like to present the Explorer’s new interior. It’s more luxurious, more soft-to-the-touch and features more amenities that any of its forbearers, which suggests to us that Ford has deliberately gone and driven its number one selling SUV upmarket.
Many of you have commented that Ford should’ve embraced the Explorer’s pickup truck underpinnings like the Nissan Xterra has with its rough-around-the-edges image and go anywhere attitude. The fact is that it didn’t and instead has created a vehicle upmarket that consumers could possibly grow into after they’ve owned an Escape or an Edge and require something more capable of accommodating their gear and towing their toys.
The new Explorer comes ready to coddle its owner in an interior much more upscale than any previous version. Look around the new interior and your eyes fall upon wood accents (faux though they may be), seats with suede inserts and, of course, the large screen front and center that displays the DVD nav system and audio controls.
While our tester did not come with the optional third row bench, it does feature a 60/40 split folding rear bench. Leg room in the second row is much better than in ye old Explorer and the driver’s seat features 10 ways of power adjustment. Optional adjustable pedals also aid in finding the most comfortable driving position. Trucker butt was never an issue on our aforementioned two and a half hour roadtrip, as the seats were firm and supportive but far from pew-like.
Overall the interior is inoffensive and will thus be an adequate place for most to spend time, although the dash feels less like it was designed and more like it was assembled. Where Ford attempted to infuse the interior with a bit of style is where we think things went wrong. For instance, the problem with faux wood trim is that its lack of organic authenticity is usually obvious. The grain inside the Explorer has an obvious plastic surface that will never be mistaken for a protective clear coat. While the trim is officially described as “Woodgrain accents”, if it did come from a real tree then extra effort must have been spent to replace the natural look of wood with this plastic veneer.
The other area in which Ford designers decided to try something different was with the vehicle’s door handles. Reaching for a grab handle on the side of the door will get you no where. Rather than being embedded within the door, the handles are directly in front of the controls for the windows and door locks and have a cylindrical shape. Opening the doors requires the same grip as grabbing a metal pipe off the floor, which at first is unintuitive. We got used to it, but struggled for a reason as to why the designers would risk altering such an elemental and often used component.
The answer became clear thanks to an internet search that revealed the Explorer’s door handles were designed to prevent a woman’s manicured nails from chipping when opening the door. I consulted a lady friend of mine about this, and while she did acknowledge that her nails had been the victim of door handle attacks before, she questioned whether the problem couldn’t have been fixed merely by altering the grab handle's shape. It’s clear, however, that Ford has recognized the more luxurious the Explorer becomes, the more women will make up its demographic.
The DVD nav system is an above average unit that features touch screen control, which is fast becoming a must for any nav system worth its weight in maps. Its interface is intuitive enough that cracking open a manual was never necessary, and the audio and nav functions do a good job of sharing the screen real estate without getting in each other’s way.
The stereo system has dibs on the top inch or so of the screen, in which it displays information like the radio station frequency, song name, artist’s name, etc. We’re grateful, however, that there are redundant stereo controls on the steering wheel as operating the unit via the touch screen controls was generally not a rewarding experience. Call us old fashioned, but we like stereos with knobs that can be cranked and buttons that can be pushed. While we appreciated the presence of stereo controls on the wheel, we were bigger fans of the controls found on the steering wheel of the new Ford Fusion, which were both larger and required less contorted finger motions to use.
One place in Ford’s new Explorer where the hand falls quite naturally is on the new gearshift, which was lifted directly from the F-150. The previous gearshift was column-mounted, but relocation was required when the column was redesigned to be safer in a crash. The new location is better anyway and the Explorer benefits from this connection to the tough F-150, regardless of how minor it may seem. It’s like a little pebble in a pile of pillows that reminds you this truck comes from good, hard working stock.
While the new interior in the 2006 Explorer may have some ergonomic issues, our nit picks were generally minor and wouldn’t necessarily carry a lot of weight in a purchasing decision. The design, materials and overall fit and finish of the interior are much better than in previous models, even if we're not prepared to rank them best in class just yet.
Having been on the market so long and sold so many units, the Explorer benefits from having the basics down. In other words, it’s an SUV that excels more in the fundamentals than in the details. In our third and final post we’ll talk about the Explorer’s powertrain and driving dynamics, two fundamental areas that profit greatly from this sport utility vehicle’s 15 years of constant evolution.
Our final day with the 2006 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer 4X4 has come and gone, and we’ve saved the best parts about this redesigned SUV for last. Having driven a myriad of body-on-frame SUVs in our day, we know that there’s only so much engineers can do to hide the fact that these platforms weren’t designed for smooth rides and handling that inspires confidence. While there are a few SUVs out there that do a commendable job at concealing their pickup truck parts, not many do it as well as this new Explorer, nor at the price Ford’s asking.
Take a glance at the Explorer’s spec sheet and you’ll find some pretty fancy stuff has been added this year, like the 4.6L V8 that shares the same variable cam timing and three-valve cylinder heads with the Mustang GT and 5.4L F-150 engine. This motor produces 292 hp, a full 53 more ponies than last year’s two-valve 4.6L engine, while also improving fuel economy by 10 percent. Part of the economy gain can be attributed to Explorer’s new 6-speed automatic transmission, which Ford claims is a first in this segment of midrange, midsize SUVs. Contrary to some of the comments left on the last post, this transmission is not the same one that Ford developed in conjunction with GM, which may end up first in one of Ford’s new CUVs or next year’s Lincoln Zephyr.
The engine is a willing partner, and while we never had the opportunity to hitch up a trailer there was never a moment we were left wanting in the power department. Despite that, our tester returned fuel economy in the 18-mpg range on our road trip last weekend. Sure, it’s not as disciplined as the Escape Hybrid when it comes to consuming gasoline, but it certainly isn’t the most ravenous SUV ever.
The Explorer’s suspension definitely felt tuned more for the highway than city streets, as its firm suspension felt a bit jarring at slower speeds over rough pavement but was solid and stable at speed on the freeway. While both the front and rear suspension have been improved for 2006, we felt the rear in particular contributed the most to settling down this big SUV in the turns. On ramps that circle around like Hot Wheels track put the rear suspension to the test, and for the most part it remained flat and composed.
Ford also improved the Explorer’s brakes for 2006. As before, they feature standard four-wheel ABS with electronic brake distribution and electronic brake assist. Engineers improved the system’s heat dissipation and durability in this year’s model, which is partly responsible for increasing the vehicle’s payload capacity and tow rating. The new system effectively masks the true weight of the Explorer, which is significant, by swiftly scrubbing away the effects of inertia.
At one time or another throughout this vehicle’s legacy it has been lacking in one area or another where other SUVs excelled. If it wasn’t down on ponies to another SUV with a V8 then it didn’t handle enough like a car for critics’ tastes. Though the press complained it was always one step behind, the buying public disagreed with its dollars and made the Explorer a perennial best seller.
Having grown in size, power and price over the years has finally placed the new Explorer at the leading edge of body-on-frame midsize SUVs. Unfortunately its arrival coincides with the segment’s rapid decline in sales. The Explorer name, however, has built up too much cache for Ford to either kill it in advance of the CUV onslaught or radically change its nature to be more raw and capable of such rustic activities as rock crawling.
Let the CUVs come and leave the rock crawling to Jeeps and FJ Cruisers (although we would welcome the revival of the Bronco to that niche segment). What Ford has done is deliberately modified its Everyman’s SUV to become a more discriminating man’s SUV. We only wish the Explorer had spent as much time at the tailor as it did with its personal trainer. Perhaps then this icon of suburban status wouldn’t be wearing last fall’s fashions over its fancy new hardware.
New Car Test Drive
New and improved for 2006.
When you mess with a winner, you must be very, very careful, and that's what Ford was when they redesigned the Explorer, America's favorite midsize sport utility for the last 15 years in a row.
By careful we don't mean conservative, either. By careful, we mean Ford spent serious effort dotting the i's and crossing the t's, looking after the details that make all the difference. At the same time, Ford realigned the models and overhauled the pricing structure, giving customers more truck for less money, nearly $4,000 less in some cases.
The new Explorer is available with a V6 or V8. It's a traditional midsize SUV with body-on-frame construction, and competes against the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, and Nissan Pathfinder.
We were well pleased with the new steering, the new suspension, and the new brakes used on the 2006 model, all of which have improved by at least one order of magnitude. The new 2006 Explorer is quieter than last year's model and it rides better. It also leans less in corners and the brakes are more responsive. The rear seats fold flatter than on last year's models and the interior has been improved throughout.
The Explorer lineup from bottom to top includes the XLS ($27,175), XLT ($28,870), XLT Sport ($30,845), Eddie Bauer ($30,845), and Limited ($33,160), with all prices reflecting the inclusion of the $645 destination and delivery charges. Ford is quick to point out that these suggested retail prices are from $675 to $3,900 lower than those for comparably equipped 2005 models, which don't benefit from all the improvements for 2006. The average price reduction is $1,750.
Standard equipment on the XLS includes the 4.0-liter V6 engine and five-speed automatic, Roll Stability Control (RSC), independent rear suspension, keyless entry, cruise control, message center, compass and thermometer, power windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning, a floor console, rear vent windows and added 12-volt power point, a cargo management system, AM/FM stereo with single CD or MP3 player, driver manual lumbar adjuster, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
XLT adds a chrome grille, unique bumper and trim, power seat, fog lamps, puddle lamps, 16-inch tires and wheels, an overhead console and additional storage.
The Eddie Bauer version adds yet another grille design, running boards, roof rails, 17-inch wheels and tires, more wood and leather, 10-way power seat, message center and trip computer, and remote keyless entry. The Eddie Bauer is now split into two models, one with the luxury package added in and one without. The Luxury Package on the Eddie Bauer adds $1700, an audiophile sound system, six-disc changer, steering wheel controls, power passenger seat, heated power mirrors, and puddle lamps.
Limited adds its own four-bar grille, 17-inch tires and wheels, monochromatic appearance package, heated seats with memory, still more wood and more leather and a few more small amenities.
Each model offers seat configurations for five, six or seven passengers. The five-seater gains a flat load floor behind the second row of folding seats. The six-seater features four captain's chairs in the first two rows and a folding 50/50 split third seat. The seven-seater gets a folding 60/40 bench seat in the second row in lieu of the cushy bucket seats.
Each model also offers a choice of rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, the latter with a four-position dashboard switch for 4H, N, 4WD, 4WD LOW, and 4WD Auto.
Options include all-wheel drive ($2,225); the V8 package ($1,200); a DVD system ($1,295); power folding third-row seats ($1,340); quad bucket seat package ($795); third-row seat ($845); memory pedals ($350); and rear air conditioning ($650). Sirius Satellite Radio will be offered late in the model year. DVD-based navigation is also available for about $1,500.
The standard safety package includes the automatic all-wheel-drive system and roll stability control, a system already in use at Volvo and Land Rover, that intervenes with throttle and brakes when the vehicle senses an impending tipover situation. Seat side air bags, an new adaptive energy-absorbing steering column, a passenger classifier in the seat, and the TPMS. Ford says this truck meets all known future safety standard for front and side crash through 2010.
The new 2006 Ford Explorer looks like the F-150 pickup in front, with finer, scaled-down features. There are four different grilles to distinguish the various models.
The combination of more chrome, bigger and bolder lamps and the new square-cornered aero mirrors make it look more like a Lexus SUV than a Ford, and we mean that in the most complimentary way. They don't want you to mistake it, though, so every 2006 Explorer badge is about twice as big and twice as thick as those on 2005 models.
Between the elaborate headlamps and the revamped rear lamps, it's a big, empty box with five large doors and a whole bunch of space inside. With the V8 engine, the new Explorer is rated to tow up to a whopping 7,300 pounds. And it's rated to carry up to 1,500 pounds of payload.
Everything inside the Explorer is new for 2006. Every switch, button, face, texture and panel of the interior has been changed, changed to a much more modern, crisper presentation, one of Ford design boss J Mays's personal design campaigns brought to life. There is a dark wood for most models and darker, richer wood for the Eddie Bauer version. The graphics are accented with metal surrounds both shiny and matte, depending. On the downside, we saw a fair amount of glare reflected off the dash top onto the windshield of the early models we drove.
Second-row seats are available as a 60/40 split bench seat, a 60/40 split bench with recline and third-row access, or two bucket seats and a console. The bucket seats are more comfortable for adults, but the bench seats fold down better for cargo.
The third row, when ordered, sits almost two inches higher than before so kids can see out better. The third row is always a 50/50 split, but is available with manual or power folding and unfolding.
And now the floor really is completely flat when all the seats are folded, with almost no forward rise (2 degrees as opposed to 10 before). With three seats, you get 13.6, then 43.9, then 83.7 cubic feet of space as the seats fold down; the five-seater has slightly more room with the seats folded.
The DVD-based navigation system is very easy to use, with excellent colors and graphics, though the screen is on the small side.
Ford designers may have gone over the top on the front door armrests, the latch pull, and the opening handle. The armrest is very large and filled with foam to assist in side crash protection, with the chrome latch pull rounded around the leading edge, but the door handle is buried underneath it, where the human wrist cannot comfortably go. Otherwise, the new Explorer interior works very well.
The new seats are at once more supportive and more comfortable than the old, hard Explorer seats, the colors and trims and combinations are elegant and tasteful, the metallic trims just about right, not overdone.
Two new engines are available for the 2006 Ford Explorer. The 4.0-liter single-overhead-cam V6 has been retuned with variable valve timing and is rated at 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. The V8 is the traditional 4.6-liter single-overhead-cam V8, but now it has three valves per cylinder, two intake and one exhaust, for better breathing, 53 additional horsepower at 292, and 300 pound-feet of torque.
With the V6, you get a five-speed overdrive automatic. With the V8, you get a brand new Ford-built six-speed automatic overdrive transmission with full electronic control of upshifting, downshifting and torque converter functions. Both powertrains are quiet and smooth. The lighter V6 is a bit easier to turn and maneuver, but both are very pleasant, competent and quiet rides.
Ford told us before we drove the truck that customers had demanded quieter operation from the new Explorer, so they have used the body-on-frame design to maximum advantage to quiet the truck down, isolate it from the road, and halt the transmission of noise and vibration. In this respect, Ford has done an exemplary job on the new truck. The AC system operates with 30 percent less noise yet moves and exchanges more air. Conversations are easily heard, the music sounds good, and the mirrors, with their new square corners defying aero logic, are mercifully quiet, as are the tires.
This is a big, heavy family truck with 15 years of continuous sales success and a few dark episodes behind it (involving previous-generation models), so they have utterly bathed it in safety equipment, from standard Roll Stability Control (also used in Volvo, Land Rover, and other Ford Truck products) to smart air bags to side air bags to an air curtain setup for the second and third rows. Ford says it expects a full house of five-star safety ratings, the highest possible, when the truck is tested.
The new steering on the 2006 Explorer has a much heftier feel at highway speeds with plenty of assist for parking. The new suspension is one of the most supple we've driven on any SUV in this big class. And the new brakes work much harder with much less pedal pressure and travel than before. Body roll is much better (the Explorer leans less in corners), and the general feeling of being planted on Earth is stronger on this new chassis. The new chassis is some 63-percent stiffer than before, and a stiff chassis is a key element for crisp handling and a smooth ride. This truck manages to be isolated from the road, but well connected to it, at the same time.
Ford is a lot better at trucks than cars these days, and with the new Explorer, they have shown just how good they are at getting the basics right and getting the pricing realigned. They understand that today's customer is keenly aware of all the choices in this segment, is simply not willing to pay as much for a new SUV as they may have been five years ago, and that the new customer wants more goodies for the money or he or she will go elsewhere. This new Explorer is as much an exercise in cost accounting as truck design, and it succeeds on both counts. Overall, a great value.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford Explorer XLS ($27,175), XLT ($28,870), XLT Sport ($30,845), Eddie Bauer ($30,845), Limited ($33,160).
St. Louis, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky.
Options As Tested
all-wheel drive ($2,225); quad bucket seats ($795); rear air conditioning ($650); Ultimate Convenience Package ($1340).
Ford Explorer XLT V8 AWD.
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