2006 Ford Explorer: Good Answer to Bad Weather

Ford's New Explorer Proves Up to the Slush

May. 02, 2006 By M. Justin Fort

It looked like the nasty weather might not hit until after crossing Vail Pass. It did. By noon, the Thanksgiving storm fell thick enough to cloud the headlamps, bury the road in inches of powder, and a number of unfortunate drivers had decided to park in the ditch at funny angles. The weather didn’t get better. For 14 more hours, it did the exact opposite of improve.

Rewarding Driver

Ford’s 2006 Eddie Bauer Explorer, deep in Utah
Few adventures have kicked off smoother. Conditions hallo’d Ford’s new Explorer with a sunny smile, headed north and east from San Diego. Bound for some snowboarding in Summit County. Stuffed full of enough hardware to last a week of riding and sundry adventurism, Ford’s revised-for 2006 Explorer looked oddly empty. Snowboard, boots, cold-weather gear, various luggagelike bags, clothing and munchies all sorta’ disappeared into the seven-seat cabin.

Certainly a truck, useful in the back woods and stable enough for light trail work.
Scope the power-folding third-row seats: they gingerly tuck away with the press of a button (the power-folding mechanism is slick – give Ford credit). Can a child be trapped in a power-folding seat? We forgot to check… The rear wagon-space is cavernous, even with the third row installed. Flipside, the third-row seats are something of a sport-ute oxymoron. These seats toss the salesmen a fresh clip for appealing to shoppers, but they also compromise interior space, undercarriage real estate and add significant weight. How much bigger would the back-back be in this wagon had those seats not been there at all? How often do you have seven people to drag around?

Most every vehicle in Westcliffe (near the old Conquistador resort) is four-by – the Explorer is a little posh, but necessary
Nothing bad happened the whole drive north on the 15, and nothing else happened on the 70 as the Explorer was pointed away from the setting sun. Utah is a lovely state in November, very red, a little chilly. Crystal blue and powerfully cloudless, the sky wore not a shred of pending misfortune. There is merit in an uneventful drive, and when injected with varying chunks of self-entertainment you can find yourself at your destination fulfilled. Good tunes for 15 hours in a fast car will do that, and an iPod with a charger helps. That said, how is it possible any car built since the advent of portable digital could be missing the necessary jack? Hello, Ford, audience-check. That aside, this is a seriously cozy cruiser. Composed and well centered, it’s as confident as the previous generation (the first IRS Explorer), and the new V-8 shows its gumption.

Building a Better Explorer

No longer ridiculed by Subarus with more ground clearance, the independent rear suspension does make for usable clearance
Ford’s most recent Explorer made it hard to build a better one. Corporate’s modular 4.6-liter V8 had finally found a place between the fenders, and the interior was subtle and approachable. An ergonomic pleasure. Draw a line between the cabin of a Honda Accord wagon and an F-150 and you had a 2004 Explorer. This one? Better motor (292hp/300ft-lb) – 53 more ponies plus more torques to match, employing the three-valve head that has shown up in the Mustang and F-150. There’s also that new transmission – the six-speed auto is liquid-smooth and the downshift behavior leads to surprising freeway dashes. This new six-speed alleviates many of the programming glitches that plagued the ’04-05, though not all. Unfortunately, that improved computer didn’t fix the new drive-by-wire throttle, which is occasionally possessed by gremlins. It’s an improved truck, if not by leaps and bounds, at least in some of the details. Among these details is the excellent motor/trans combination and sure-footed all-wheel drive. Mileage ran about 18mpg for the duration of the drive, which was shy of the OEM numbers ( 14 city, 20 highway ), but reflects more realistic speeds driven on the freeway when rolling cross-country.

The new grille requires some familiarization. It’s not ugly, but it’s a little contrived.
Ford has sorted out the functional side of their vehicle interiors better than any domestic manufacturer. Dodge stuff looks nice, but the lifespan is dubious. GM product is dubious at best. Ford parts, all considered, are a little frenetic while tending towards the bland, but will last as long as the truck and typically have user-friendly nailed. You don’t need to settle down in the Explorer to snag upon a flaw or two in the interior, though. The door handles, gawd those awful door handles. You use them every time you get into and out of the truck – didn’t anyone beta-test them? Some first-year design grad was shooting to make the exit handles interesting and missed the target, instead bull’s-eyeing ergonomically anti-dynamic and weird. Call them counter-functional, and a regression from the predecessor.

OEM Michelins were suitable for on-road use in all weathers, but didn’t cope well with Rocky Mountain mud. The running boards served as glorified mud flaps
New in the 2006 was a navigation system, coupled with the OEM sound system and climate controls through a dash-centered touch-screen. Not all of the functionality of that stereo was easily available, but the heat & air was simplistic and the in-cabin results satisfying. Also satisfying was the navigation – choice of the litter – comparing favorably with similar products offered by certain Japanese and European manufacturers. DVD-based (which means one update disc, not a dozen), and wildly accurate, with dirt roads and old fire trails in the Rocky Mountains popping up on the screen. The vocal playback navigation even recognized Colostomy Road (no kidding, that’s its name), which was a rutted two-track that passed beneath the 70 east of Glenwood Springs. Ask yourself, though, do drivers need this sort of distraction?

Not the worst weather, but almost.

Some of the strife of the return drive would have been welcome on the trip up, but what is an adventure with balance? Probably boring. Someone once said that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. Not a bad day of weather found the Explorer headed in, but coming back, there was that snow. Lots and lots of snow. No hobgoblins, though.

As conditions deteriorated, the cozy interior of the new Explorer (and confident foul-weather maneuverability) offered more and more anchor for frayed nerves
It was the return trip that saw Ma Nature bedevil things for Explorer and company. Worse than being stuck unmoving on the 70 West for six hours was that no one thought to return three miles to Copper Mountain. Riding all that fresh pow would have been much more fun than sitting in traffic with angry truckers, and that was in daylight. As the day passed into dusk, the road began to move. Troopers were escorting bundles of motorists over Vail Pass (10,666ft). Odd how many more people still felt they were better off in the ditch than on the road. Lots of California plates amongst them. The Explorer didn’t flinch.

If you squint you can see Copper Mountain at the end of the chain of headlights. Next time, there will be an extra day to spend
It was early in the return trip that cars began posing in ditches for pictures
Driven by an off-roader who learned to drive in a Chicago snowstorm (in a diesel Volvo wagon), we ditched the daily-driver set all-wheel drive for a locked four-high and minded the reflectors on the roadside. Watching the reflectors is how the snowplows stay on track, and as long as the Explorer kept roughly between them, it stayed roughly on the freeway. As it got later, the snow fell more laterally than down, and visibility went got worse as the freeway grew more desolate. All very comforting. More vehicles littered the roadside in varying states of wrecked. At about 3:AM, the wind and snow died off and left a fine sheen of ice on everything. The new Explorer was up to it. You should try one on for yourself.

Enough development and even a 4800lb load like the Explorer can be made to handle – AdvanceTrac works
Ford corporate was a little upset when their brand new Explorer came back dirty. Really dirty.


Exploratory Thoughts

• It’s nice to activate the ditch lamps without needing the headlights on.
• Sunroof limits the size of an otherwise useful ceiling console.
• Steering is excellent – the new rack design in Ford trucks is better than anything in large domestics.
• First and second-row seating are a concession to the third row, and neither offer as much space or support as a truck this big should.
• Outward visibility is good regardless, and top-notch for a wagon of this size. Typically excellent Ford outer mirrors.
• Dashboard assembly quality was less than expected from Ford, and the nav/sound/climate center was off-center. We suspect this Explorer was an early production unit.
• Rubber selection was your standard high-mileage affair, with limited off-road cred. A real set of tires should be your first upgrade for a new Explorer if you plan to get it dirty.
• Quiet as a vault inside. Very well isolated.

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