CUSTER, S. D. -- Hugging blacktop on a rambunctious route threading around towering granite ramparts in the Black Hills of South Dakota, we're cruising the American West in a stretched edition of Expedition, the humongous sport utility vehicle from the Ford Motor Company.
The Expedition line of 2015 consists of two versions -- a standard-length Expedition with 119-inch wheelbase and the stretched EL ("extended length") edition with a foot-long wheelbase extension and vast space in the 7-passenger cabin including 24 cubic feet of extra space in the cavernous cargo bay.
There are four trim variations -- sporty XLT, elegant Limited, rugged King Ranch and new top-tier Platinum -- with every issue showing refreshed sheetmetal shapes and packing Ford's new 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 engine rigged with direct injection and twin turbochargers for high performance yet highly-efficient fuel burn.
Expedition's name traces to its inception in 1996 as Ford's full-size SUV in two trims and two V8 engine options plus modes for 2-wheel-drive and 4-wheel-drive traction. A second design in 2003 resembled the original but added room in the passenger compartment and a third-row bench seat which collapsed into the flat cargo floor for a slick disappearing act with optional push-button power. For 2007, Expedition and the stretched EL scored a robust fully-boxed tube-through-tube frame which measured stronger and far less flexible than the previous chassis.
The 2015 editions of Expedition ride on this rigid chassis and carry a suspension system rarely found on a truck -- there are independent components suspending the rear wheels as well as the front ones. The suspension scheme also allows a more convenient fold-flat third-row bench seat and low load-floor height.
The steering mechanism is a low-friction rack and pinion device with electric power assistance, which eliminates a load of hydraulic equipment and contributes to the efficiency of the engine to boost fuel economy.
Stopping capability is impressive due to large brake calipers plus thick rotors and a dual-bore master cylinder which adds a firm feel to the brake pedal.
And every Expedition has a standard anti-lock brake system (ABS) on tap to effect straight-track stopping, plus Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability control device with Roll Stability Control (RSC) and Trailer Sway Control (TSC).
Despite its full-size girth and triple-ton weight, Ford's big wagon acts surprisingly nimble so it's easy to maneuver on pavement as well as dirt or snow and seems entirely pleasant to drive.
Sole powertrain for Expedition and Expedition EL is a new dual-cam and twin-turbo all-aluminum 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 with direct-injection and performance-enhancing Ti-VVT (twin independent variable camshaft timing) technology worth 365 hp at 5000 rpm and torque of 420 lb-ft from 2500 rpm.
The EcoBoost V6 links to a 6-speed electronic automatic SelectShift transaxle. This powertrain achieves 2015 EPA fuel economy scores of 16 mpg for city driving and 22 mpg on the highway for Expedition standard-wheelbase 2WD versions.
Both Expedition and Expedition EL offer two traction modes (2-wheel-drive and 4-wheel-drive).
The 4WD models use a 2-speed transfer case with electronic shift-on-the-fly capability as controlled by a dash-mounted rotary knob for dialing up a driving mode, from rear 2-wheel traction to 4-wheel high and low or automatic all-wheel-drive.
The 2015 editions of Expedition and Expedition EL present a brawny new face marked by a flat triple-bar grille with halogen projector headlamps and LED foglamps.
Other exterior changes include a new line of wheels capped by optional 22-inch polished aluminum wheels for Limited, King Ranch and Platinum trims.
Expedition's updated cabin components include a fresh center stack to accommodate new technologies, including an optional 8-inch touch screen for SYNC with MyFord Touch, passive entry with push-button start and Ford's Blind Spot Information System with cross-traffic alert.
Layout of the cabin for Expedition shows captain's chairs on the front row, a middle row with optional captain's chairs or standard bench split 40/20/40 with easy fold-and-flip outboard sections, and the optional third-row 60/40-split bench that tucks flat into the floor with optional PowerFold electric power controls.
Expect MSRP figures for Ford's 2015 Expedition line to extend from $43,845 to $61,670.