2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac: Better the second time around?

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The original Sport Trac was a clever fusion of pick-up truck and SUV. Its four-door crew cab had room enough for people — and its abbreviated bed had room enough for a load of mulch (or even a dirt bike, which it could handle with the tailgate down and the tubular, U-shaped bed extender secured in place).

Great idea — just not especially well-executed the first go ’round. The original 2001 Sport Trac was underpowered, for one thing. While you could get a V-8 in the Explorer — from which the Sport Trac was descended — Ford limited the powertrain choices in its hybrid SUV/pick-up to a 206-hp V-6. That limited both sportiness and utility — limiting the Sport Trac’s appeal to both kinds of buyers. Then the Firestone tire/Explorer rollover debacle hit — and the Sport Trac (which shared both the Explorer’s looks and its chassis/suspension) suffered by association.

Ford might have given up on the Sport-Trac entirely — especially with gas prices now 50-75 cents per gallon more than what they were back in 2001 (even with the recent price downturns). But apparently, the company still believes in the basic viability of its pick-up/SUV combo — and that with a few fixes and tweaks, it could live up to its original promise.

Major changes include a newly available V-8 and significantly up-rated maximum towing capacity (6,800 lbs. vs. the original’s 5,300 lb. rating), a new six-speed automatic transmission (with the optional V-8) a revised, slightly longer bed (4.5 feet with the rear gate in place) with three built-in cargo storage areas, composite liner and tie-downs — plus a much-improved interior layout. In-dash GPS is now available, too — as well as factory-installed Sirius satellite radio.

On the underside of things, the new Sport Trac gets a fully independent rear suspension in place of the clunkier (rougher riding and not-so-great-handling) solid axle design used on the original model. The changes were engineered specifically to make the Sport Trac’s ride softer and more forgiving over rough surfaces — as well as to make it react more like a car when the driver turns the wheel suddenly, as during an emergency lane change. Ford says all these modifications have greatly reduced the chances of rollover-type accidents — a leading cause of injury and death for drivers of SUVs.

It should be pointed out that problem wasn’t so much a design defect with the original Sport Trac (and other SUVs that shared a similar truck-based suspension layout) as it was a matter of SUVs becoming mass market vehicles increasingly driven by people with little experience with truck-based SUVs — and often, not enough respect for their built-in limitations. Before the SUV boom, SUVs were mostly driven by people who understood truck-based vehicles — and knew that driving them like cars and expecting them to handle curves at 15 over the limit and 80-90 mph highway speeds was kind of like expecting a Porsche or Corvette not to get hurt attempting a backwoods fire road or fording 12 inches of stream.

Today’s SUVs have to be designed with suburban soccer moms — not Outback Jacks — in mind. Of course, the trick is doing so without killing the off-road capability and toughness that are a big part of the reason for buying an SUV over a car in the first place.

The Sport Trac seems capable enough on paper — and in a week of knocking around the backroads of rural Virginia, tackled rutted gravel/mud fire roads just fine and didn’t have any trouble at all climbing a steeply graded cattle pasture owned by a friend (my informal SUV testing grounds). It also went through a stream with 6-10 inches of running water without shorting out or otherwise embarrassing itself. And on-road, the ride and handling are vastly improved over the old model. The steering’s, in particular, is now car-precise (almost sporty car precise) and the truck doesn’t lurch uncomfortably in turns, even if you’re doing a few mph over what you ought to be doing.

Buttressing the built-in safety improvements are electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes and side-impact air bags for front seat passengers — standard equipment on all trim levels. Curtain/head airbags are available optionally.

All in all, the new Sport Trac’s about as safe (and idiot-proofed) as it’s possible to make an SUV without turning it into something that’s no longer an SUV. If you do manage to get into trouble, don’t look to Ford. Look in the mirror.

The other big improvement is the availability of V-8 power in the form of Ford’s 4.6 liter overhead cam engine — this one fitted with a set of brand-new three-valve cylinder heads. It produces 292 horsepower — a most welcome 86 hp upgrade over the original Sport Trac’s 206-hp, 4-liter V-6. It’s a difference you can feel, especially climbing a steep grade. Those who need to pull a trailer or cart heavy loads can now consider a Sport Trac, too — whereas previously the takeit or leave it V-6 caused many buyers to do just that (leave it).

Though the V-6 is still the Sport Trac’s base engine (up-rated slightly to 210-hp) the presence of the V-8 option adds some vitally-needed testosterone to a vehicle that was anemic in its previous incarnation — especially when ordered with 4×4 and the added weight of the transfer case and related hardware. Ford has definitely solved that problem, at least. If the Sport Trac still doesn’t sell, it won’t be for lack of guts.

Don’t discount the V-6 out of hand, though — especially if you’re not buying a 4×4 model. It’s a perfectly adequate powerplant for knocking around the ‘burbs — and you can save yourself $1,200 in up-front costs ($24,245 for the base XLT 2WD V-6 vs. $25,445 for the same truck with a V-8).

Interesting, however, both engines use about the same amount of fuel — 15 city/20 highway for the V-6 vs. 14-15 city/20 highway for the V-8. Ford says the V-8’s new three-valve heads and other efficiency improvements (including the new six-speed transmission) are responsible for closing the gap. It maybe the first time there’s no gas mileage penalty to speak of when choosing the extra cylinders — and getting almost 90 extra ponies to play with.

True four-wheel-drive with a two-speed transfer case is available in the Sport Trac — unlike the light-duty all-wheel-drive system used on the Honda Ridgeline, which is similar in theme but unlike the Ford, built on a car-type chassis. The Control-Trac system has three modes — Auto, High and Low. In 4×4 Auto, engine power is sent to the rear wheels until there’s slippage, at which point some is routed automatically to the front wheels to regain traction. This is the default setting for normal “on-road” driving. For rougher going, there’s 4×4 High — which locks the system into a 50-50 power split, front to rear. And for deep mud/sand or heavy snow , there’s 4×4 Low range — which, like the Sport-Trac’s optional V-8 engine, is a feature unavailable in the Ridgeline.

The Ridgeline’s a nice vehicle — and size-wise and otherwise, the Sport Trac’s only direct competition. But don’t confuse its truck-like looks with truck-like capability. There’s also the fact that you can buy a V-8 4×4 Sport Trac XLT for $27,940 — which is just slightly more than you’d pay for the base model (and V-6/AWD-only) Honda Ridgeline ($27,800). As if that weren’t enough to jam a stake through the Sport Trac’s primary foe, Ford claims its truck is actually quieter by 5 (decibels) at 40 mph than the Honda. I wasn’t able to compare the two side-by-side, but I can report the Sport Trac is extremely civilized and pleasant to drive around, on road or off. My only beef is the same beef others have with its cousin, the Explorer — and that would be the door handle layout. Instead of a traditional lever you pull out, you open the door from the inside by grasping and pulling up on a catch that’s built into the armrest on the door. That part works ok; the problem is the way things are set up the door can get away from you in a parking lot, potentially dinging the car you’re parked next to. It’s a small nit — but it’s something to be aware of.

Still, the overall package rates high. It is cheaper, stronger, tougher — even quieter — than its number one opponent, the Honda Ridgeline. And it offers versatility and style that sets it apart from traditional SUVs and traditional trucks — combing the best of both worlds into one.

Ford has done a nice job revisiting the Sport Trac — and making the best of the concept it developed more than six years ago. The only sad part is it took Ford six years to get it right.

We’ll see if buyers give this one another chance.

Throw it in the Woods?

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