2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac is larger, has a V-8

Friday, August 18, 2006

As its name implies, the Ford Explorer Sport Trac is part Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle.

But with a 4-foot-long pickup bed behind the four-door, five-person passenger compartment, the Sport Trac also is part pickup truck.

And for 2007, both parts of the Sport Trac are updated.

The midsize Sport Trac is 5 inches longer and 2 inches wider than before, with updated styling that makes it look more substantial. Inside, it has an interior that's virtually lifted from the Explorer SUV and is quieter than before. Underneath, it has the independent rear suspension of the '06 Explorer.

And, for the first time, the body-on-frame Sport Trac is offered with a V-8. The 292-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 boosts towing capacity to 6,800 pounds.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $24,940 for a 2007 XLT two-wheel drive model with V-6.

The lowest-priced Sport Trac with four-wheel drive, which is also an XLT with V-6, starts at $27,435.

Competitors include the 2007 Honda Ridegline, which starts at $28,395 for a base model with V-6 and standard four-wheel drive, and the 2007 Dodge Dakota Quad Cab, which starts at $22,405 for a two-wheel drive with V-6 and manual transmission.

This is just the second-generation Sport Trac.

When Ford introduced it in 2000, the Explorer was the best-selling SUV in the country, and company officials sought to emphasize the Sport Trac's Explorer-like styling and SUV-like utility. But in recent years, competitors have jumped into the segment with four-door pickups and have emphasized truck attributes to attract buyers.

Major competitors have longer pickup beds than the Sport Trac's. For example, the Ridgeline's bed is 5 feet long, and the bed in the back of the Dodge Dakota Quad Cab is 5.4 feet long.

This, plus the fact the Explorer no longer is the top-selling SUV in America, leaves the inclusion of the word "Explorer" in the Sport Trac name perhaps more of a throwback and less of a marketing advantage.

Five out of five stars

To be sure, though, the new Sport Trac, whatever its name, is noteworthy for its top, five-out-of-five-stars rating in federal government frontal and side crash testing. This was for a 2007 Sport Trac that had optional curtain air bags, which are an additional $560, even on the top-of-the-line Limited models.

Now with an independent rear suspension subbing for the rear solid axle, the Sport Trac rides better than ever with a sturdier feel both on-road and off.

The test model -- a Limited 4x4 -- still exhibited some truckish bounce, even on pavement, and seemed a bit stiffly sprung. At times, I also noticed sensations of heavy, jarring weight -- known as "unsprung weight" -- at the corners where motions of the 18-inch tires and wheels weren't quite fully managed.

But the quiet interior and tall seating positions in the new Sport Trac were greatly appreciated. In fact, on the road, I looked down on the roof of a Pontiac Grand Prix in front of me.

The base engine remains a 210-horsepower, four-liter, single overhead cam V-6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. Engine improvements provide smoother idling and better emissions control.

The test Sport Trac had the uplevel, single overhead cam V-8 that can generate 300 foot-pounds of torque at 3,950 rpm.

The only transmission with this engine is the new, six-speed automatic, and shifts and engine ramp-up were smooth.

I wished for a sporty engine note now and then but didn't hear it.

And while the 292 horsepower felt strong on highway runs, the Sport Trac V-8 tester didn't have impressive low-end torque for quick maneuvers.

Fuel economy isn't the greatest in these kinds of vehicles, especially with V-8s. The tester, for example, was rated at 14 miles a gallon in city driving -- which I actually got during my test drive -- and 20 mpg on the highway.

The Sport Trac's overly tall gearshift lever in the center console was overdone for my tastes, and I was frustrated by the hard-to-find door release levers and door pull handles in the tester.

Nice interior

The grain and look of the plastic on top of the dashboard isn't rich-looking, but the center stack housing the controls for audio and ventilation systems is clean and orderly. I liked that the center console storage area between front passengers has a padded lid so front-seat riders can rest elbows there comfortably.

Three adults sit closely in the back seat, and rear doors don't open as wide as they do in some other vehicles. It was a bit of a step up for me to get inside. But rear legroom of 36.9 inches is better than expected and is a tad better than the 36.4 inches in the Ridgeline and Dakota Quad Cab.

Rear-seat riders in the Sport Trac do rest on short rear seat cushions, though, and the middle passenger in back does not have a head restraint.

The pickup bed is made of a rust-proof, dent-proof composite that's lighter than a comparably sized steel bed.

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