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December 18, 2000

Review: 2000 Ford Explorer Sport Trac

In biology, hybrids combine the best characteristics of different variants.   So it is with cars.  Witness the success of the car-based offroaders.  They combine the compact dimensions and good handling of a car with the high ground clearance and wagon configuration of a traditional offroader to endear themselves to many owners and climb steadily to the top of the sales charts.

Ford decided to take this genetic splicing in a different direction with the Explorer Sport Trac, by combining the DNA of the Ford Expedition and the F150 to come up with the first available offroader-pickup hybrid.  Could this possibly be the best all-around vehicle?

First of all, we’re dealing with trucks here, so it can’t hurt to have Ford’s proven expertise in producing competent pickups and respectable offroaders.  The previous model Explorer was the best-selling offroader in the USA, before all the Firestone-related accidents were publicized.  Ford also has in its stable the best-selling vehicle in the US, the F-150 pickup.

This is certainly the best-looking pickup on the market, hands down.  The front end is the new generic Ford face for its entire pickup and "SUV" line, from the Escape to the humongous 5.0 meter Excursion.  The truck looks particularly good when seen from the rear quarter view.  The bold silhouette and taillights, and pronounced wheel arches give the Explorer a machined-from-a-single-billet look distinct from its rivals like the Mitsubishi L200 and Nissan Frontier.  Black bumpers, bedliner, roofrails and stepboards complete the Tonka looks.

From the F150, Ford has scaled down the length of the Explorer.  It's at 5320 mm versus the F150's 5702 mm. (A Civic is only 4450 mm long- measure your garage before buying a Sport Trac!).   Thankfully, they took out the length from the pickup bed and not the cabin.   The cabin seats four adults comfortably, five in a pinch, with adequate legroom and headroom front and rear.   All seats are leather-covered, too, for a very unpickup-like cabin.

The cockpit feels like vintage 90s Ford spiced up with modern touches.  There's a smattering of silver trim around the center console, dashboard and door grips.  Gauges are white-faced and large enough to read, but sadly the odometer and trip meter are still mechanical, as is the gear indicator.  Clumsy column-mounted shifter frees up some cupholder space, but that could have been put to better use by a front center seat.  Window switches still look the same as those on a 1980s Taurus, but are finally improving in feel.  Front seats are wide and supportive, yet soft enough to be comfortable for city driving.

For those excited by the Tonka look of the exterior, there's no shortage of toys inside the cabin either.  There's an overhead compass-thermometer, CD, a power rear window that opens up to the pickup bed, and aircon vents and controls for front and rear.  The audio system is also of a dual nature, with separate-source headphone jacks for the rear; the kids can listen to their Pokemon CD while mom and dad listen to the impeachment trial on AM radio.

Don't expect much entertainment from the driving, though.  The Sport part of the Explorer's name is missing from the equation.  Throttle response feels surprisingly sluggish given that there's a 4.0 liter gasoline engine under your right foot, coursing its 205 bhp / 327 Nm through a five-speed automatic gearbox.  This is partly due to our test unit's being almost fresh from the factory, but even after break-in, don't expect it to snap to attention like a BMW 6-cylinder.  The gearbox doesn't feel like a huge improvement over the F150's four-speed in terms of response, but it should help the fuel economy.  It's still pretty dismal though: one owner reports around 6.5 km highway and less than 5 in city driving.  We noticed that in sedate driving, the gearbox would shift up at 2300-2500 rpm, letting the huge displacement of the engine do the work.  Downshifts are prompt but the engine seems happier in the lower range than in the 4000-5000 rpm sweet spot favored by Japanese V6s.   Cane it, though, and this truck can keep pace with your typical 2.0 sedan.

Steering is slow and doesn't offer any feedback, but it is smooth and accurate.  Which is probably a good thing, anyway.  These trucks aren't meant to be tossed about like a roadster.  We've already heard some horror stories of F150s and Explorers being rolled because their drivers failed to remember that these are vehicles with a high center of gravity and just have to be driven differently from a car.

The large windows and mirrors and commanding driving position help in maneuvering this beast through traffic.  The "F150 Factor" ("I will suffer severe damage by crashing into this Ford") also helps in jostling with jeeps and FX taxis for road space.   We had to bear in mind, though, that behind the cabin was still some          1.6 meters of truck.  Cornering is still uncomfortably vague if you're used to a car but with less of a floaty feel than the F150.   As for safety, ABS and dual airbags are standard equipment.

Though the "Sport" may be lacking, the "Explorer" and "Trac" are true.  The Explorer part is certainly guaranteed, given the robust chassis and towering ground clearance, making the car ideal if you have to plow through floods. The Trac (for traction, presumably) is also a sure bet, given the huge engine and 4WD high/4WD low gearbox.  On rough-road driving, the Explorer rides well, absorbing bumps and impacts from protruding rocks, filtering out most of the harshness from bouncing the occupants.

The Ford Explorer Sport Trac also has the F150's Grin Factor, which means you'll be enjoying that high ground clearance and feeling of invincibility…for about a week.  Only then will you discover (perhaps too late) if this vehicle is really for you.  Despite its large and luxurious cabin, the Explorer is still a pickup, with all the advantages and disadvantages of this configuration.  Advantage: You can hose down the bed after transporting your Labrador or sacks of his food.  Disadvantage: Your large-screen TV or furniture will not survive a trip in the rain.  Nor will your shopping be as secure as in a sedan's trunk or wagon's load area.   Shell-type bed covers will be available, but they'll probably spoil the truck's looks.  One neat trick in the Explorer's arsenal is the cargo bed extender.  Fold down the tailgate, flip over the steel cage and the bed extends to nearly 1.8 meters, with no need to dangle plastic bottles below your cargo.

So is the Ford Explorer Sport Trac the best all-around vehicle?  It's a 4/5 scale F150 that is much more practical and easier to drive.  Unfortunately its price is 1/1 scale: P1.295 million for the Standard edition, which has all the toys mentioned, while P1.325 million will get you the Limited Edition, which adds a sunroof and the bed extender.  The Explorer is a less compromised vehicle than the 2+2 seater Ford F150, but still not as versatile as a wagon or MPV.  However, in these days of P1.1 million CRVs and P1.3 million RAV4s, the Explorer Sport Trac deserves a long look if you have the cash…and garage space.

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