Ask most folks to name a popular sport-utility vehicle, and they’ll probably say Ford Explorer. It hit the market 15 years ago and has been the best seller ever since. No wonder other car makers use the Explorer as a benchmark for their own mid-size SUVs. And Ford’s extensively reworked 2006 Explorer raises the bar again. But given so many rivals, is it high enough?
The 2006 Ford Explorer is technically not all-new. The last frame-up change was in 2002. But with so many newer rivals, Ford made this mid-cycle revamping so complete that little of last year’s Explorer remains. The almost all-new Explorer is more powerful, more capable, and stylish, and is available in 14 configurations. That includes two or four wheel drive, either a V6 or V8, with five trim levels; base XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited.
While a true truck-based SUV, its new, fully boxed frame has a larger cross section for extra stiffness. As before, the rear half shafts pass through frame portholes, allowing a lower center of gravity for more roll control and more leg room in the available third row seat.
Explorer’s 4x4 system uses an electronic on-demand 2-speed transfer case with locking center differential and fully automatic mode. Though wearing the same footprint and proportions, the 2006 Explorer is all new from the A-pillars forward. Looking more substantial, the new front end, with three different F-Series grille treatments, wears a power dome hood and high style geometric lights.
Step bars or running boards trim Explorer’s still familiar profile, set up on standard 16- or 17-inch wheels. Our Limited 4X4’s wheel wells were filled with 18-inchers covered in plastic chrome, a glitzy trend we don’t like. Around back, the sophisticated look is completed with geometric taillights and a simplified lift gate with separate opening glass.
Now for the most important stuff! Power starts with the carryover, yet cleaner and quieter, 4.0-liter 210-horsepower V-6, mated to a five-speed automatic. Available on XLT and up is our Explorer’s single-cam 4.6-liter V8 with new three-valve heads and variable valve timing. The same 4.6 used in Mustang, output here is 292 horsepower, a big gain of 53, and 300 lb-ft of torque.
Though somewhat buzzy, power comes up quickly at launch. Our 4x4 Limited bullied its way to 60 in 8 seconds flat—about a second and a half quicker than in 2002—and raked in the quarter mile in 16.3 seconds at 87 miles per hour.
Explorer’s first-in-its-segment 6-speed automatic transmission returned firm but never abrupt shifts. Even with two overdrive ratios, there was minimal power drop off between gears. Cruising is amazingly quiet, with EPA fuel economy ratings of 14 city and 20 highway for a V8 4X4. Our test loop returned the expected 17 mpg.
Complementing the new frame is a heavily revised all-independent suspension. Parts are beefier, with new monotube shocks. While a very competent setup, electronic stability control with roll sensor is also there to protect against the unexpected.
Turn ins are quick and stable. Chassis feedback is admirable with only a moderate amount of unalarming body roll and push. Steering feel was also impressive and much improved over previous Explorers.
To stop the Explorer is a revamped four-wheel disc brake system that produced 60 to 0 stops in a fine 125 feet. Electronic brake force distribution and brake assist are included. Improved brakes also made possible higher 1,520-pound payload and 7,300-pound tow ratings.
Inside, the Explorer is all-new. It’s F-150-inspired, and quite luxurious, offering up to 7-place seating with the optional third row seat. Front side impact and side curtain airbags with rollover protection are standard. Seats are covered in upscale cloth or this optional leather, and you can add seat heat.
Not all of the new interior design is successful, however. Unusual door handles and low door pulls take some getting used to. Gauges wear sporty white faces and chrome rings. While the handsome center stack neatly houses climate, audio and optional touch-screen DVD Nav system. The substantial gear shift now resides down on the console.
Our three row Explorer was configured for six passengers with second row buckets replacing the three-person 60/40 split bench. Our tester also included rear seat DVD entertainment and a smoother operating power fold third-row seat. Explorer cargo room, always a high point, remains generous, up to 85.8 cubic feet.
Explorer base sticker prices range from $27,175 for an XLS 4X2 V6, to $36,585 for a loaded Limited 4X4 V8. But deep dealer discounts are the norm.
With so many updates, the latest Explorer, with its tried and true SUV guts, should have little problem standing up to its newer car-like competitors. The 2006 Ford Explorer is a solid, capable, and now quite luxurious offering, that remains the mid-size family SUV that others must match.
- Engine (limited 4x4): 4.6-Liter V8
- Horsepower: 292
- Torque: 300 Lb Feet
- 0-60 MPH: 8.0 Seconds
- 1/4 Mile: 16.3 Seconds @ 87 MPH
- 60-0 MPH: 125 Feet
- EPA: 14 City/20 Highway MPG
- Mixed Loop: 17 MPG
Long Term Updates
We often talk about the good timing of a new vehicle introduction. But, one that wasn’t so lucky was the new 2006 Ford Explorer. It arrived last fall, just as Hurricane Katrina was wreaking havoc on gas prices, and heavier-duty SUVs were falling out of favor.
But as we have learned with our long term Ford Explorer Limited, there are just some things that traditional, body-on-frame SUVs do best. Like carrying heavy loads and towing. And with its independent rear suspension, even the Explorer’s third row has great leg room. Plus highway ride and handling that’s superior to many cars.
But there is the issue of fuel economy. After 6 weeks and 3,600 miles, we’re averaging 16.7 miles-per-gallon of regular grade gas. Yes, we wish it was better. Still, that’s with a 292-horsepower 4.6-liter V8. Even the lighter, unit-body V6 Honda Pilot would manage only about 2 miles-per-gallon better, and it’s not nearly as capable.
And with the Explorer’s sophisticated new interior, there’s not another mid-size mainstream utility that’s treats you better. So, while the best selling sport-ute may not have perfect timing, it’s still the near perfect choice in a traditional SUV.
What’s going to happen to the traditional, body-on-frame mid-size SUV like our long term Ford Explorer Limited 4X4? Well, given the recent thirst for higher fuel economy, you might assume that they will fade away and be replaced by crossover SUVs with lighter, car-like unitized frames. But not so fast.
If you want to tow a larger trailer, no CUV can come close to the Explorer’s 7,300 pound towing capacity. Plus, for deep snow or mud, or for real off-roading, Explorer is a true 4X4 with high-low gearing.
And, we like our Explorer a lot. It rides and handles well, and has lots of room inside, especially in the third row with enough leg room for adults.
Easier to use door handles, and more storage for small items like wallets and cell-phones are our only wants.
As for fuel use, after 4 months and 18,000 miles, our 292-horsepower 4.6-liter V8 consumes a gallon of regular every 16.0 miles. That’s about 15 percent thirstier than a CUV of the same size. But, the Explorer always has plenty of power when you needed it. So, while traditional truck-based SUVs like the Ford Explorer may become scarcer, they still have a viable role to play.