Despite all the controversy surrounding it last year, the Ford Explorer remains America’s most popular sport-utility vehicle. But to keep that edge, and quiet buyer concerns, Ford is introducing an all-new 2002 Explorer, along with a very different looking luxury cousin, the 2002 Mercury Mountaineer. Ford says the new Explorer and Mountaineer are better, more versatile in every way. But are they good enough to restore buyer confidence and remain SUV leaders? Ford certainly hopes so, because after four years of development, they have delivered a pair of all-new mid-size SUVs that share little with the ten-year-old design that they replace, and also less with each other! Both the 2002 Ford Explorer, and 2002 Mercury Mountaineer, share a new heavy-duty boxed parameter frame that is amazingly 350-percent stiffer torsionally than its predecessor. But it’s what’s attached to that frame that’s even bigger news for Explorer and Mountaineer. That would be their first independent rear suspension. This short-and-long-arm, coil-over-shock design replaces the rigid-axle that has been used since the first 1990 Explorer. And, by running the half shafts through portholes in the frame, the new design allows the floor, and center of gravity, to be lowered by almost 7 inches. That means more utility and stability. It also allows for a first time third-row bench seat. Optional on Explorer and standard on Mountaineer, it’s best for children and teens. But it is easy to climb into. Just flip and fold either outboard section of the 40/20/40 second row seat. The 3-section design allows great cargo and people flexibility. The new chassis and suspension also allow for a cockpit that’s almost 2 inches wider. It features a totally redesigned dash, with a cleaner control layout. Advanced front airbags can be augmented with the first side-impact curtain airbags in its price class. Seats are new too, with more support and fore-and-aft travel. Ford’s optional power adjustable pedals allow just about everyone to get comfortable. Those pedals control a drivetrain that consists of either a 4.0-liter single-overhead-cam V6, with 210 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, or a first-time 4.6-liter single-overhead- cam V8 with 240 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. Both deliver power through a very smooth 5-speed automatic transmission, and to either the rear, or all four wheels. Four-wheel-drive Explorers will use a refined, now push-button, Control-Trac system. It offers drivers an Automatic mode for everyday driving, 4x4 High for severe weather, or 4x4 Low for off-road use. The more pavement-oriented Mercury Mountaineer, on the other hand, is available with either two-wheel-drive, or Mercury’s exclusive fully-automatic all-wheel-drive system. Both on-road and off, the new Explorer feels much more solid and sophisticated. The new independent rear suspension dramatically reduces wheel hop on rough surfaces, and improves the ride, especially for rear seat passengers. The more luxury and now very differently styled Mountaineer offers an even smoother ride. Though with its softer springs, it has more of a tendency to bob and weave over bumps. Both the redesigned 2002 Ford Explorer and 2002 Mercury Mountaineer are clearly impressive. So much so that our friends at AMI Auto World Weekly said that: “... there is no question that these improvements, and a bunch more, make for a far better Explorer.” Both of these vehicles will be at dealers soon, with Ford pricing starting at $24,620 for the base XLS grade Explorer. The XLT has a base price of $28,380, while the Eddie Bauer and Limited models start at $32,690. Prices for the Mercury Mountaineer start at $29,230 for a 2- wheel-drive model. The all-wheel-drive version carries a base price of $31,210. That’s no more expensive, and in some cases even less expensive, than the 2001 model. So, formidable new competitors not withstanding, Explorer and Mountaineer should retain their sales leading status, as the new benchmarks of affordable, mid-size SUVs.