SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. -- Curvy blacktop stretches along the ragged shore of Saranac Lake in New York's scenic Adirondack Park, where we're testing the non-skid traction capability of a luxurious new Eddie Bauer edition of Explorer, Ford's mid-size SUV which scores a make-over for 2006. Although a mist coming off the lake deposits a thin coat of water on the road to create a slippery surface, Explorer's nubby all-terrain tires -- working through the active Control Trac four-wheel-drive (4WD) traction mechanism -- stick with a confidence-inspiring grip as the vehicle demonstrates its dexterity in zipping through all curves.
A robust new tube-through-tube frame that's stronger and far less flexible than the previous chassis becomes a core ingredient for the 2006 Explorer, and it carries a suspension system rarely found on a truck -- there are independent components suspending the rear wheels as well as the front ones. These structural changes to the chassis and suspension of Explorer dramatically affect the wagon's ride and handling characteristics.
It's smooth and settled now like it's a part of the road and, when pitched into the face of a hard corner, Explorer reacts with a flat stance to forge a stable track through the curve without tossing the structure off-center or unsettling riders strapped inside. The new issues of Explorer feature fresh styling outside and a revamped layout for a cabin, with powerful new engine choices and more safety gear aboard. Explorer looks muscular in the new design posed in tall stance with a bold face, curvy bulges on the sides around wheelwells and large squarish headlamp clusters on front corners flanking a big grille in the shape of an inverted trapezoid. Overall, it's an eye-catching design of crisp angles and complex curves blending together to provide a unique statement for one powerful SUV.
Explorer's name traces back to its inception in 1990 as the first sport-utility wagon to provide cushy comforts and push-button conveniences of a conventional sedan. A second generational design in 1995 introduced a short-and-long-arm (SLA) independent front suspension to replace the original cumbersome twin I-beam arrangement. New designs for Explorer in 2002 brought a longer and wider chassis with the SLA independent suspension applied to rear wheels in a concise mechanical scheme that not only generated a smoother and more controlled ride quality but liberated undercarriage space at the rear for the addition of an optional third-row bench seat that folds into the floor of the cargo bay.
For the re-make of Explorer of 2006, however, Ford goes further by forging the rigid new frame, adding precise mechanisms to improve ride and handling traits, packing more insulation aboard for a quiet cabin environment, piling on more plush gear to enhance passenger comfort and more safety systems to protect them, then overhauling trim tiers and price points to deliver more SUV for less dollars.
There are two-wheel-drive (2WD) and 4WD versions with equipment increasing through trim designations of XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited. Inside, the spacious cabin reveals new decorative trimwork, a revised instrument panel with stylish gauges, plus firm bucket seats on the front row. Seats configure three ways with a capacity of five or six or seven. Explorer with five seats stocks a Row 2 bench split 60/40 with fold-down seatbacks. Explorer with six seats shows twin buckets on Row 2 divided by a console and a bench on Row 3 split 50/50 with fold-down seatbacks. Explorer with seven seats gets the three-seat bench on Row 2 and the two-seat bench on Row 3.
The optional PowerFold seat on Row 3 applies push-button controls to drop seatbacks flat against the floor. Issues of personal safety are addressed with strong structural elements and energy-absorbing crush zones front and rear plus a variety of safety systems aboard. All trim versions contain dual-stage frontal air bags for front riders plus side-impact air bags. Explorer also offers roll-over protection via Ford's Safety Canopy curtain-style side air bags for first and second rows that will deploy if on-board sensors detect roll-over movement of the vehicle. Gear promoting active safety includes a fast rack and pinion steering mechanism and standard four-wheel disc brakes, an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and Ford's AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control (RSC) anti-skid equipment.
The optional 4WD Control Trac system also relates to safety, as the mechanism has an automatic mode that monitors grip for all wheels and can selectively distribute traction between front and rear wheels to maintain tire bite on slippery roads -- like our route around Saranac Lake. Push-button controls allow the driver to lock the system in high or low range of 4WD for off-road travel. Powertrain upgrades apply to the 2006 Explorer.
The standard engine, a 4.0-liter single-cam V6, gets a new camshaft and variable valve timing plus improved emission controls to achieve ULEV II status. It produces 210 hp at 5100 rpm with strong torque dispersed evenly across the range of engine speeds up to 254 lb-ft at 3700 rpm. Tied to the V6 is a five-speed automatic which uses adaptive shift logic through electronic controls. The optional engine, a new aluminum V8 plant in single-cam design with 4.6-liter displacement and three valves per cylinder, punches out 292 hp at 5750 rpm plus big torque of 300 lb-ft at 3950 rpm. The V8 mates exclusively with a new six-speed electronic automatic that improves fuel economy figures and elevates Explorer's trailer towing capacity to 7300 pounds.
Explorer in base XLS trim carries ample equipment -- air conditioning and power controls for windows and locks and mirrors, keyless entry and cruise control, a message center, compass and thermometer, tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) and an audio system with AM/FM/CD-MP3. Explorer XLT brings more gear, like chrome touches and foglamps plus power controls for front buckets. Explorer Eddie Bauer adds running boards and roof rails, leather and wood in the cabin and an optional luxury package with deluxe sound system, although the Limited goes further with a monochromatic appearance package, heated front seats and more. Prices, pitched lower than for comparably equipped 2005 issues, begin at $26,530 for the Explorer XLS 2WD.