2004 Ford Explorer Sport Trac

2004 Ford Explorer Sport Trac

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Thinking outside the box has become a hallmark of success in today's rapidly changing business world. The same is proving true in the automotive realm, where rethinking conventional approaches has led to numerous variations on the basic transportation theme.

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One of the most innovative embodiments of that philosophy is the Ford Explorer Sport Trac. Introduced for the 2001 model year, this midsize hybrid blends the people-moving prowess of a traditional four-door sport utility with the cargo carrying capabilities of a pickup truck. With its unique configuration, bounteous comfort-and-convenience touches and value-oriented pricing, the Sport Trac has found favor with a wide range of active-lifestyle buyers from coast to coast. Modestly tweaked for 2004 with a freshened interior and various package upgrades, it promises to be an even more popular choice for the young and young at heart.

This year's Sport Trac comes in four trim levels-XLS XLT, XLT Premium and Adrenalin-in either two- or four-wheel drive. Even the base XLS, which opens at $23,045, plus $645 destination charge, offers an impressive roster of standards that includes AM/FM/CD stereo, power windows and locks, 16-inch wheels, intermittent wipers, two-tone cloth front bucket seats and a split rear bench seat. Newly added to the 2004 XLT standard features mix are (Convenience Group) remote keyless entry, tilt steering wheel, woven floor mats and speed control.

Whether rear-drive or fitted with two-Speed Shift-On-The-Fly, all Sport Tracs are fitted with the same 4.0-liter SOHC V-6 that makes 210 horsepower and 240 lb.-ft. of torque. The engine is paired with a five-speed automatic regardless of the number of driven wheels. For this encounter, we sampled an XLT Premium grade rear-drive model that based at $26,750. At that level, items like keyless remote entry with door-mounted keypad, tilt steering column, speed control, fog lamps, step bars and 255/70 tires also are part of the mix. Comfort Group and Premium Sport Group items also come standard on XLT Premium Sport Tracs and include such amenities as a six-way power driver seat, premium floor console, bright cast aluminum wheels with conventional spare and more.

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Spawned from the previous-generation Explorer 4-door, the Sport Trac benefits from a 14.25-inch stretch in wheelbase-to 125.9 inches-as well as a host of structural reinforcements that enhance chassis stiffness by some 40 percent. Both rear and 4WD Sport Tracs rely on a common suspension formula. Up front, upper and lower control arms work with torsion bars while a live axle is suspended by two-stage leaf springs in the rear. Stabilizer bars at each end help round out the package, and directional control comes courtesy of a decently weighted rack-and-pinion power-steering package.

The Sport Trac's interior trim smartly melds comfort and taste. While strongly reminiscent of Explorer from which it came, the basic trappings have a more rugged, resilient finish and are complemented by several bespoke cosmetic touches. Topping that list is a pair of more robustly bolstered front buckets and rubberized washable flooring covered by removable Berber-carpeted mats. Settle back in the driver's seat and you face an array of white-on-black instruments. An easy reach away, at the center of the dash, is the radio and heat/air switchgear. All of these elements are set off by Warm Steel accent trim. Multiple stowage cubbies are located throughout the Sport Trac's inner sanctum, with its center, covered armrest folding open to reveal a carry-along soft tote bag.

The Adrenalin Edition will offer a fresh look for Sport Trac. Prominent is a 510-watt Pioneer Premium Audio system, which includes nine speakers (an 8-inch subwoofer) and a dual media audio head unit. Exterior Adrenalin cues include "thumbprint" 16-inch aluminum wheels, P255/70R16 OWL all-terrain tires, foglamps, step bars and special Adrenaline badging.

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On the safety front, second-generation dual front airbags, optional segment-first Safety Canopy Side Curtain Airbag System, belt-tighteners and load-limiters, computer-designed crumple zones, side-impact bars, child seat tethers and LATCH anchors in rear outboard seating positions provide concrete evidence of Ford's continuing commitment to overall passenger safety. Fully capable of taking on adult riders-but frankly two would be the optimum count in that department-the Sport Trac's split rear bench also folds to accommodate smaller items that may be best secured inside the cabin. A final and particularly nice touch is its one-touch up/down rear window with a separate vent setting that helps optimize airflow throughout the interior.

When mission priorities turn to heavier/bulkier/dirtier items, the Sport Trac offers an equally useful cargo box made from rustproof, ding-proof composite material. This industry-first design not only ensures years of low maintenance, it's 20 percent lighter than an equivalent steel box. In addition to a handy 12V power-point and 10 tie-down hooks, the 50-inch box also offers provisions for a removable cargo area divider as well as the aforementioned optional cargo cage that flips rearward to extend the effective length of the bed by nearly two feet (22.6 inches). For owners more concerned with keeping their outback cargo away from Mother Nature as well as the prying eyes/sticky fingers set, Ford also offers a slick two-piece, lockable hard tonneau cover.

Dynamically, the Sport Trac makes a pretty respectable case for itself as a lighter-duty hauler. While the more potent 4.6-liter corporate V-8 would certainly be a welcome option, the 4.0-liter six definitely has enough snap on tap to keep it well abreast of normal traffic flow under most circumstances-and still meet LEV smog standards. For 2004, the FFV (flexible fuel vehicle) engine capability allows for operation with traditional gasoline or ethanol 85 blended fuel.

Given its truck-based origins and ride-biased all-season tires, it's not hard to understand why the Sport Trac exhibits a fair amount of understeer in corners taken with even modest brio. The stretch wheelbase also leaves it a bit nonplussed in brisk transient maneuvers. But overall, the suspension tuning strikes a very viable balance between comfort and control, making the Sport Trac a travel-mate you can actually enjoy living with on a daily basis.

Ready to start thinking outside the conventional SUV box-or at least the back half of it? If so, Ford's versatile Sport Trac is definitely worth a look. (www.fordvehicles.com)

2004 Ford Explorer Sport Trac rear
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