Never mind the skewed publicity you’ve seen on the national TV news — the new 2002 Ford Explorer makes a darn nice tow rig, and it’s a pretty decent vehicle for driving without the trailer, too.
Ford has done a complete top-to-bottom renewal of the Explorer, which endured a long time in its most recent form with interim sheet metal and interior changes since its last major makeover. An all-aluminum 4.6-liter SOHC V-8 engine, a new five-speed automatic transmission and fully independent rear suspension (IRS) are among the significant changes that make the Explorer an even better vehicle.
The 2002 Explorer with 2WD, the 4.6-liter V-8, automatic transmission and 3.73 axle can be rated to tow as much as 7,300 pounds. Our test rig was a 4WD model with the same equipment, and its tow rating came in at 7,000 pounds, which is a chunk for a downsized vehicle to tow.
Our first towing experience with the new Explorer took place in the hills east of San Diego, California, and we had a 29-foot Fleetwood Prowler Lynx trailer as a payload. The trailer weighed approximately 4,600 pounds, so while it didn’t overtax the Explorer’s tow rating, it gave us a good feel for how the SUV handled such a load.
Lower step-in height and larger door openings make entry easier, and improved noise and vibration controls along with smoother body aerodynamics make for a quieter ride. The cushy but supportive seats have more travel, which combined with adjustable-position pedals and tilt/telescoping steering wheel allows for most driver body sizes to be comfortable. This feature is especially important in a downsized or compact vehicle.
A new third-row seat, which gives the Explorer the capacity for up to seven adults and cargo, was made possible by the same feature that improves the Explorer’s ride and towing stability: the IRS. The differential and suspension component placement enabled the designers to lower the frame height, which increased the interior headroom and footroom potential. This makes for a third-row seat that accommodates adults in relative comfort.
Passenger safety ranks high in priority along with towing safety, and the new Explorer is fitted with a full array of up-to-date safety features. These include dual-stage front-occupant airbags, AdvanceTrac interactive vehicle dynamics system that combines traction control and yaw control, industry-first side-impact curtain air bags and rollover air-bag protection (available later this year). Child safety-seat attachments in the second and third rows, front-seat passenger weight-sensing technology that deploys or deactivates the air bag as appropriate, seat-belt pretensioners and other sensors are regulated by a restraint-control module that monitors the severity of a crash and adjusts the various safety devices accordingly.
On the Road
A walk-around revealed the trailer was safely hitched and a once-over of the brake control called for some fine-tuning, then we were ready to go.
We started with a cruise up the freeway toward the foothills. The 240-hp 4.6-liter engine is ultra-smooth and quiet, and responds well to the throttle. Even the presence of the trailer, while sensed as an average load, is not felt as an extreme detriment to progress. With a maximum of 280 lb-ft of torque on hand at 4,000 rpm, the engine produces in excess of 250 lb-ft as low as 1,500 rpm and continues above that point as far as 5,000 rpm. A broad torque curve is a good thing when towing, and the 4.6 certainly delivers in this regard.
Ride and handling are big issues with smaller vehicles, and an extra 2-1/2 inches of track width plus 2 inches more wheelbase than last year’s Explorer, packaged into a body of the same size, help improve stability and visual appearance. The truck’s ride is on par with the best — not too firm, not too soft.
One measure of a tow rig’s potential for safe trailer handling is in how it reacts to lateral inputs by the trailer. Stability starts with a good trailer that’s well-balanced, has the requisite 11 to 15 percent minimum hitch weight and is otherwise properly designed and built to tow well. Our first miles with the trailer in tow revealed the Explorer was hitched to a nicely — done RV that was going to cooperate well, and it didn’t feel like it was pushing the truck around. Wind caused by the usual freeway traffic, trucks and large rigs was noticeable but not a cause for white-knuckle wheel handling when passing or being passed at speed. In the foothills, where frequent turns had us flailing to saw the wheel back and forth (a precise operation due to the power rack-and-pinion steering system), the trailer held tight and created minimal adverse handling sensations.
In short, the Explorer is rock solid. Explorer’s new IRS is just what’s needed to give the compact rig that extra edge in solid trailer-handling feel and performance. By its nature, a typical leaf-spring/solid axle rear suspension can flex substantially from side-to-side when a trailer pushes laterally against the hitch ball, which causes the frame and body to shift laterally by twisting the leaf springs. Especially in a curvy-road, mountain-driving situation, this body shift can translate into reduced steering stability as well as a sometimes-uneasy feeling that the back of the rig is being pushed around by the trailer. That’s no fun.
On the other hand, the new Explorer IRS has the differential mounted solidly to the frame, and the suspension links with coil springs allow vertical wheel travel but hold the wheels in fixed lateral positions relative to the frame and body. When the trailer exerts lateral pressure on the hitch ball, the only suspension flex that takes place is in the tire sidewalls another solid argument for keeping the tires at their maximum rated inflation pressure when towing. This solid-feeling suspension setup translates into a secure sensation that the driver is well in charge of the trailer instead of vice versa.
We took on a 5 percent grade and maintained as much as 59 mph uphill in fourth (direct) gear, which shouldn’t aggravate too many impatient drivers following on a grade. Downhill, engine compression braking held us to 27 mph in second gear on a similar 5 percent hill.
Our towing fuel economy throughout the drive, hills and flatlands included, averaged 9.1 mpg. While that’s no ground breaker, it’s not bad for towing a full-frontal-area travel trailer. Likewise, we recorded 19.3 seconds elapsed time during a 0- to 60-mph acceleration test, and a 40- to 60-mph passing run consumed 11.3 seconds.
This first drive was necessarily brief, but it gave us a good feel for the new Explorer’s ability as a part-time tow rig in addition to handling the family commuting chores. The Explorer’s new powertrain and safety features will place it in good standing in the growing race for SUV market share, and it has a good chance of making plenty of headway against the others in the specialized towing segment.