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February 13, 2005

Review: 2005 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer

Elvis Presley, James Dean, Clint Eastwood—men with very different backgrounds, and yet, all have become at least during a part of their lives, the epitome of American cool.  Despite their varied styles of performing, they’ve managed to engrave themselves into the hearts and minds of one of the world’s finickiest markets: the United States.  Even more remarkable is how their topics of rebellion, realization and self-preservation translate so well even to the Filipino setting.

Then again, the Philippines is no stranger to American culture.  Movies, food and Spam—you name it, and the Filipino has embraced it with a combination of love and mystery.  The steady sales of the Ford Expedition and the cult-status enjoyed by the F-150 are some testaments to this fact.  Despite becoming the new status of prestige and power, neither vehicles are real-world practical with their huge bulk and Iraq-conquering V8 engines.  Now, what if, the typical American SUV characteristics of unstoppable power, excellent accommodation and a flexible interior were molded into a more manageable size?  It should get pretty interesting.  And it did, with the arrival of the Ford Explorer.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty details, let’s get one question out of the way: is it any good?  Yes, definitely.  Nameplate and prestige aside, the Explorer is the perfect balance of bulk and practicality for seven adults.  It is, by far, one sophisticated transport that’s good enough both town and out-of-town use and whose immense popularity is well-deserved.

Slotting itself between the Escape and the Expedition in terms of size, the Explorer is just as visually long as any Japanese mid-sized sedan.  That said, the Explorer still manages to get the lion’s share of the attention, sending security guards frantically saluting and waving, as if a VIP just went by.  The blue-oval maybe the new symbol of prestige, power and unlimited gasoline resources here, but in the case of the Explorer, it carries it to a new level.  It shouts: “I’m rich; I’m going places; get out of my way.”  In terms of styling details, the Explorer looks perfect, combining styling cues seen in both the Expedition and Escape.  The chunky body and upright lines connote utilitarianism without being too austere.  It remains subdued, but imposing enough for the golf club.

Inside, it feels like a 7/10th scale Expedition with similar controls and switchgear layout.  In general, every button is easy to use and understand, the only gripe being the rather small ventilation controls.  Front seat space is remarkably excellent; allowing even the most avid fan of McDonald’s enough breathing space between the seat bolsters.  The seats are a delight with just the right amounts of support and adjustment.  It’s electronically adjustable for the seat back, height and even lumbar support.  The foot pedals are electronically adjustable too, so even those who are vertically challenged will find the right seating position in the Explorer.  The second and third row accommodations aren’t exactly first-class, but they aren’t baggage either.  There’s enough space inside to really fit seven adults, just as the brochure promised.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the Explorer is its use of materials.  Although Ford claims that this SUV should feel more expensive than its 2.295 million peso retail price suggests, it just doesn’t exude the right feel.  The interior is well-built and solid, but the plastics and finishing touches are on the cheap side.  For instance, it’s a given that wood grain trim on this type of vehicle is just a plastic imitation, but it’s bad enough that doesn’t even look close to it.  It’s a cross between a melted chocolate bar and a grade-schooler’s desk.  So, it’s a good thing that the vast amount of two-tone leather is enough to cause a slight distraction.

One thing that Ford didn’t count pennies on is on Explorer’s on-road prowess.  Employing, for the first time, an independent suspension on all four corners, the Explorer feels nimble and easy to maneuver through city traffic.  In fact, it’s a better handler than most of the similarly-sized Japanese alternative out there.  There’s heavy body roll, but it’s kept in check, making the driver feel as if he were really in complete control of the vehicle (a rarity in this class of SUVs).  Although it’s still no BMW X5, for the asking price no one else comes close.  Sadly though, the improved handling comes with a huge trade-off: a bouncy ride.  It’s not the sort of ride you’d feel from a German sports sedan riding on low-profile rubber.  It’s closer to a catamaran being thrown about in the middle of the ocean.  It’s not really discomforting, but people in the third row may feel a bit car sick after a few hours.

There’s only one variant of the Explorer here, and so, there’s only one engine available: a 4.0-liter V6.  It’s the very same one found underneath the now defunct Sport Trac and the base 2005 Mustang.  It sounds properly muscular and powerful with just a few rough notes on the upper rev range.  Still, it’s remarkably civil, delivering all 210 horses promptly and sure-footedly thanks to the Explorer’s five-speed automatic transmission.  This drive train combination enables the Explorer to achieve mileage figures similar to the Escape V6’s (5.80 km/L worst, 7.3 km/L best, average 6.06 km/L).  A four-wheel drive system similar to the one found in the Expedition Eddie Bauer is fitted on the Explorer as well.  Although it’s not the world’s most sophisticated system, it can pull the Explorer out through most muddy situations.  And it needs it to climb out of a sticky situation now more than ever.

With clamors in the west, especially in the US about SUV fuel economy and safety, vehicles such as the Explorer may face a tough time ahead.  Yet, like Clint Eastwood, it will surely continue on, bringing in fans young and old alike.  After spending a week behind the wheel of the Explorer, it’s pretty clear why it has sold over 339,000 examples in 2004 alone.  Despite the radical re-think of its competition, it’s hard to imagine another quintessential American SUV other than the Explorer.  This is one vehicle that has gotten all the ingredients right without overcooking the stew.  After all, this isn’t a one-hit wonder.  It’s America’s best-selling SUV thirteen, no make that fourteen years running.

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