2002 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer EditionA bold new take on America's perennial best-selling SUV
Replacing a proven winner is never easy. It entails walking a fine line that introduces enough to keep one step ahead of the game while avoiding the inevitable temptation to try and fix what ain't broke. With its all-new 2002 Explorer, Ford appears to have done an excellent job of treading that notoriously treacherous path.
Visually, the 2002 Explorer builds on design cues embraced by its eminently successful predecessor, which both entered and left the midsize SUV segment as its undisputed volume leader. A 2.1-inch-longer wheelbase (113.7 inches), over two inches of extra front/rear track and 1.9 inches of additional width endow this new version with an enhanced curbside presence and increased utility while retooled front/rear fascias present both a more contemporary appearance and a tidier aerodynamic profile.
The existing four-tier, four-door Explorer family carries over with XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited trim levels. But in addition to choosing rear or 4WD, buyers can now opt for 5- or 7-place seating. Displacement of the base V-6 engine remains 4.0 liters, but the old 160-horsepower OHV unit has been fully supplanted by the like-sized SOHC motivator that was added to the Explorer lineup for 2000. Still pairable with either a 5-speed manual gearbox or optional 5-speed automatic, it was previously rated at 205 horsepower and 240 lb.-ft. of torque but now carries output numbers of 210 and 254 for those respective categories.
While owners who intend to hold fast to a light-duty work schedule should find it quite serviceable with either transmission, those planning to really stretch the Explorer's performance envelope should definitely consider the V-8 alternative. Replacing the veteran 5.0-liter OHV engine that made 215 ponies and 288 lb.-ft. of twist is Ford's modern 4.6-liter SOHC V-8. Autoshifted-only, this all-aluminum motivator tallies up 239 and 282 counts in those two critical output categories-and does so with considerably less bluster than its predecessor.
Explorer pricing starts at $24,485 for a 2WD XLS. Even in base form, the equipment roster includes air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control, keyless remote, privacy glass, AM/FM/cassette radio, tilt steering column, variable/intermittent front/rear wipers and a Class II tow hitch, as well as the baseline powertrain. Our travel-mate for this outing was a premium Eddie Bauer model, which (save for minor variations in specific cosmetic trim elements) is mechanically identical and carries the same $32,195 base price tag as an Explorer Limited. At that level, the standard kit expands to include goodies like leather upholstery, dual power front buckets, split/folding rear seatback, 290-watt premium sound system with 6-disc in-dash CD, electrochromatic mirrors and redundant steering-wheel controls for the audio and climate systems. Our tester also had the V-8 engine, running boards, third-row seat, Class III tow hitch, rear air conditioner, reverse-sensing system and side-curtain airbags. Those extras brought its as-tested price to $36,510, including $625 in destination.
In addition to its cosmetic changes, the Explorer's engineering team endowed this stalwart of the Blue Oval SUV brigade with literally hundreds of tangible upgrades. The most notable involves a major rethinking of its suspension system. Gone are the front torsion bars and rear leaf springs, replaced by a coil/shock combo at each corner. But the biggest move involves jettisoning of the live rear axle in favor of a new independent setup that parallels the upper and lower control arms used up front. The net result is a vehicle that rides and handles better than any of its predecessors while offering more usable space inside.
An integral part of this redesign involves the decision to route the rear halfshafts through rather than under the frame rails using an elongated slot to accommodate the necessary travel clearances. This innovative approach to packaging allows the rear floor to be lowered by more than six inches, permits fitment of a third-row seat and nets an additional inch of ground clearance. It also yields benefits for off-road partisans in the form of improved approach and departure angles.
Although its tautish character does permit a bit more road noise and impact harshness to be transferred back into the new Explorer's passenger compartment, the added control and controllability afforded by its upgraded suspension is a tradeoff well worth the modest cost engendered. Even in 2002, some classic "legacy traits" do live on. Press hard into a tight corner and the Explorer's nose will still push wide; drop the throttle or tap the brakes with the suspension loaded and it responds with a bit of gratuitous tail scoot. However, there's also a newfound poise and predictability to the Explorer's responses that make it palpably more fun to drive than most other SUVs in its class. Fit it with the optional tow package (which also adds an engine oil cooler, limited-slip 3.73:1 rear differential, heavy-duty flashers as well as the upgraded hitch) and trailering capacity rises from the standard 3,500 pounds up to 7,300 (7,000 pounds in 4WD).
Matching its numerous engineering advances step for step, the latest-generation Explorer also gets a commensurate boost in the people-pampering department. Its completely restyled interior boasts a classier overall appearance and improved ergonomics, including welcome touches like a lower step-in height and variable-position shoulder belt anchors for the second row of seats. Opting for three rows of seats changes the split ratio on the second row from a 60/40 to 40/20/40. While the position and rake angle of the back are fixed, its outboard elements do feature a nifty flip-up/flip-forward design that makes access to the rearmost tier surprisingly hassle-free. More likely to be used by the younger set, that modest two-place perch has enough head- and legroom to handle a pair of modestly scaled adults on shorter treks and still leaves a serviceable 13.8 cubic foot rear mini-bay.
While both 5- and 7-place Explorers feature a completely flat rear floor, the former boasts 46.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind its second seat; the latter only offers 44.4. Those figures rise to 88.0 and 81.7, respectively, when each is deployed in its maximum cargo-hauling configuration. No matter how you set the mix, the Explorer's large decklid with bumper-level lower margin and low-cut flip-up back glass makes any loading/unloading chore easier.
As the midsize SUV segment grows more competitive by the day, the Explorer's quest to remain the dominant power will not go unchallenged. But bolstered by the kind of meaningful improvements that permeate its 2002 design brief, Explorer's chances for holding onto the primo sales spot appear pretty good. (www.fordvehicles.com)
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