Pros: Cargo room
Cons: Ride, Fuel economy
Sport and Sport Trac carry on for 2003 with some safety and equipment revisions to their 1995-vintage Explorer design; the more-popular Explorer 4-dr wagon was redesigned last year (see separate entry). Sport is a 2-dr wagon. Sport Trac has a 4-dr SUV cabin, but gets a 4-ft-long pickup-truck bed in lieu of an enclosed cargo area. Both use a V6 engine with manual or 5-speed automatic transmission. They offer rear-wheel drive or Ford's ControlTrac 4WD that can be left engaged on dry pavement and includes low-range gearing. ABS is standard. For '03, Sport Trac gets the 4-wheel disc brakes already standard on Sport. Sport Trac is also due for optional curtain side airbags later in the model year; Sport loses its optional front side airbags. Newly available on both models are heated front seats, and during the year Sport Trac is expected to add an option package with a high-end sound system and special wheels.
New to the class this year, Honda Pilot has taken the lead as a Best Buy. It offers ample cargo space, seating for eight passengers, all-wheel drive with a locking rear differential for added traction, and above-average refinement. Toyota Highlander is our other Best Buy, chosen for its on-road competence, convenience, and attractive pricing and design.
Year-to-year sales for the three-model Explorer line--Sport 2-dr, Sport Trac pickup and 4-dr wagon--dipped 6.6 percent in calendar 2001, a decent showing given the year's turbulent events. First-half 2002 sales were down a nomimal 0.7 percent vs. the year-earlier period, also not bad under the circumstances. The mainstay 4-door wagon got off to a slow start, but the factors working against it apparently have less effect on demand for the two Sport models.
Acceleration: V6 provides good off-the-line power and fine around-town response, feeling overtaxed only in highway passing or on mountain upgrades.
Fuel Economy: Test Sport and Sport Trac models averaged 15-16 mpg in our tests, about par for a 6-cyl midsize SUV. Ford recommends 87-octane fuel.
Ride Quality: Sport Trac has a longer wheelbase than the Sport, and a far better ride, though it's still unforgiving over sharp bumps, especially the 4WD model. Sport has a bouncy, unpleasant ride on most any surface.
Steering/Handling/Braking: Sport Trac has more-accurate steering and takes corners with slightly less body lean than Sport, though both handle with reasonable balance and confidence.
Quietness: Not car-quiet, but not excessively loud for a truck-based wagon, though tire and wind noise rise markedly with speed.
Instruments/Controls/Interior Materials: Straightforward and logical, but a mild stretch to climate controls. Power window switches are illuminated. Sport Trac's novel back window powers up and down at touch of dashboard button--great for ventilation. Materials range from serviceable to leather-fancy; workmanship is solid.
Room/Comfort/Driver Seating (front): Step-in height is slightly taller than SUV norm, but there's plenty of room and a comfortable driving position.
Room/Comfort (rear): Sport Trac's rear seat is roomier than that of any compact crew-cab pickup. There's ample space for two adults, and three can squeeze in. Sport's 2-dr body makes getting in and out a real chore, and for cramped accommodations once aboard. Seat in both models is hard and lacks much shoulder support.
Cargo Room: Good in-cabin storage, and both models' split rear seatback folds in single motion without removing the headrests. Sport has ample cargo room and separate-opening liftglass. For Sport Trac, we recommend the optional bed extender that effectively lengthens the bed about 2 ft. Both models have undercarriage spare-tire storage.
Value within Class: The uncomfortable 2-dr Sport is of limited appeal, while the Sport Trac has a deserved following based on its unique blend of passenger space and open-bed versatility.