New Explorer Wins - In the End!

As published in Bushdriver Magazine July 1999

Report by Rod Eime. Photos by Rod Eime and John Grote.

As fortune would have it, the new Ford Explorer arrived just in time for our annual sortie to Darwin's new Hidden Valley racetrack for the V8 Supercars. And it was just in time!

We waited as patiently as we could for our gleaming new UQ Explorer to be rushed through pre-delivery. It had been held up on the docks for a day already, so we were heading out into the bush with a vehicle that had just 16 delivery kms on the clock.

I hadn't driven an Explorer since the 5-speed, OHV XLT we took to Perth in 1997. The cosmetic changes are only minimal and XLT now comes with running boards and fancy bronzed wheel arches. The most significant external enhancement is the addition of new, round and more powerful driving lights recessed into the front bumper. Roof racks are beefed up too.

The new chunky Firestone rubber also caught my attention. We had a nasty fright near Cook last time when one of the early fitment Bridgestones burst in comprehensive style. The delivery sheet lists these latest items as "severe duty"! We'd soon see.

Loaded to the gunnels with four people and kit for the two week, 10,000 km return trip, we were in Birdsville twenty nine hours later, after a dash through the night to get back on schedule. The storekeeper at Innaminka gave us virtually no chance of getting to Birdsville on time, with wild estimations ranging from eight to twelve hours. A well chosen, GPS-guided route via Walkers Crossing saw us there in a little under five hours - well in time for a beer and a good night's sleep. Damn the sceptics!

Again, we were given little or no chance of getting to Gemtree in a day. The Plenty was a mess, we're told. "I'll only hold your cabin till 10.30," said a doubtful Graham at the caravan park, "then I'm turning off the lights."

We lost a bit over an hour getting a flat repaired at Tobermorey Station, so the hammer was down on the unrestricted NT sections thereafter. The Explorer confidently motored along at between 120 and 140 km/h, impeded occasionally by the Plenty's famous bull-dust holes. Keep a straight rudder and you're through with a minimum of discomfort.

Groans of annoyance were sometimes audible from the slumbering backseaters as the ABS was activated to avoid the several herds of wandering hamburger meat. The Explorer's brakes are excellent. Excess speed was shaved off in no time without the heart-stopping reluctance you sometimes experience with ABS on loose surfaces. Very impressive.

The power steering gives excellent feel and feedback and was actually quite enjoyable through the twisting, sandy desert tracks.

Twelve hours after leaving Birdsville, the lights were still on at Gemtree.

After these many hours of forced intimacy with Ford's revamped 4WD, we rated the front seat comfort and legroom fine, but there were some dark clouds attached to the rear seat travellers at day's end. Around town it's not such an issue, but the thinner padding on the rear seats makes a difference on bouncy off-bitumen stuff.

Thankfully, the remaining leg to Darwin was completed at a much more sensible pace, with ample time taken for sightseeing, photography and proper breaks. Something I would strongly recommend for anybody, regardless of vehicle.

Just as I had remembered it, the Explorer is quite capable in off-road duties, although, in the highly competitive mid-priced, medium size 4WD class, a vehicle really has to stand out.

The 1999 model boasts several features that attempt to do this. XLT ($48.5K) and Limited ($60K) now ship with the 4.0 SOHC (153kW) V6 as standard, with the lower-powered (119 kW) OHV variant attached to a 5-speed manual transmission reserved for the base XL ($40K). Towing capacities are listed as 2500 and 2300 kg respectively, a load the XLT pulls with confidence, while the XL works hard at full weight. Nevertheless, I couldn't help wondering what the 5.0 V8 version would be like.

Rural buyers discovered, as we did, that the earlier standard-fitment Bridgestone tyres were not up to constant unsealed work. The new, "severe duty" Firestone Wilderness ATs looked a lot more capable, and although we did suffer two punctures on our trip, they were both easily repaired. Even so, the well-weathered stationhands at Tobermorey looked down their noses at the "pussy city crap". Their suggested bulletproof rubber would have had us looking like something out of Thunderbirds - and forget ride comfort!

XL now comes with 16" wheels fitted with the uprated rubber. XLT's wheels remain as before, while Limited gets a sexy new five spoke alloy number.

Multiple airbags are also listed as a standout feature. The new Explorer not only totes dual front bags, but side thrusters as well. It would be quite exciting if they all went off at once!

Criticism of past models included shocks and suspension as well as poor ground clearance, and to counter this, Ford engineers spent weeks in our outback testing modifications to the new suspension. US 4WD makers can sometimes overlook the fact that their vehicles are actually used for their real purpose in this country. Consequently, the comfy urban cruisers are often out of their league in the really rough stuff.

Their research concluded that the rear shock absorber setup was inadequate for prolonged outback duty and a new calibration model was devised. The XL retains the original shock absorbers with vastly improved damping, especially under high frequency conditions like corrugations. In tandem with this modification is a major reinforcement to the rear crossmember. Current owners will be pleased to learn that this modification is also available in a retro-kit.

XLT and Limited now boast Ford's new self-levelling rear end as standard. This system replaces the 'active ride control' previously featured on Limited. The system, as the name suggests, determines a standard height setting and then, via a compressor, adds or removes air to the new, recalibrated air dampers as required. Owners need to be aware of this system and how it works, because it can be fooled. A cut-out switch is mounted in the rear jack compartment so the system can be turned off if the car is jacked up. If, for example, the vehicle is then reloaded with the system off, your new 'standard' height becomes the laden height when switched back on! It can then be a pest to reset.

By all accounts the new set-up is just fine for prolonged unsealed and moderately rough cruising, with steering, handling, damping and braking combining in a confident package. Although, even with the new self-levelling feature on the rear, ground clearance could still be an issue in severe conditions. A manual override switch for maximum elevation could be a handy feature in such situations.

Fuel consumption is quite good for this type of vehicle. Unladen cruising on the freeway will return around 12.5 litres/100 kms, while hard-driving with full load between Boulia and Alice delivered a reasonable 15.5 litres/100 kms. The stated tank capacity is 78 litres giving a bit over 500 kms per tank under heavy going - just a bit small for this type of touring. That said, we were able to squeeze 90 litres into an empty tank.

In conclusion, the new Explorer is a comfortable, economical and confident 4WD with reasonable 'outback' ability. Cabin space is still somewhat limited, especially for rear seat passengers and that bench could use more padding! The 153kW, 5-speed auto with overdrive remains the only package to consider for serious towing.

June 1999

Word and Pictures: Rod Eime - Gallery of Images

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