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BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN

For Town and Country

June 25, 1993|PAUL DEAN

Fording the Santa Ynez River--running boards awash, hub-high in ice water but with tires gripping like gum plungers--respect for the grit of the 1994 Ford Explorer Limited comes quickly.

And snug in a sleeping bag in its cavernous rear--after a night of big country storms that left mountain lions shaking their paws on damp slopes--loving the Limited's purpose comes easily.

But it is by all its sweet combinations that the Limited will be revered--as camping accommodation and leisure transportation, as a delivery truck and motel away from home, as a commuter's bodyguard and a tribute to anyone's style and wisdom when dealing with parking valets.

Small wonder that the roomy, fleet Explorer is a paradigm of town and country travel: It is not only America's best-selling sport utility but also the nation's fifth most popular vehicle of any kind.

Explorer has its cookie hooks on 31% of a market segment currently besieged by 17 enemy nameplates, foreign and domestic. Its numbers top the combined sales of its closest contenders, Jeep Cherokee and Chevy Blazer. Last year, 306,000 Americans bought Explorers.

But Cherokee--pumped by the quick and easy success of its V-8-powered, 220-horsepower Grand Cherokee--is closing fast on Explorer and the somewhat temperate V-6 it was born with.

The Grand Cherokee introduced last year offers a driver-side air bag and has 60 more horsepower. It can tow 6,500 pounds, which is 1,300 pounds more than Explorer.

Cherokee definitely has the stiff upper-cut and squeaky leather of the British-built Range Rover, widely used by Britain's Royal Family for the obvious reason that it costs a queen's ransom to buy one.

Faced with such elegant challenges, Ford decided to massage its regnant sport-ute into the Explorer Limited that: a) might cork the quarterback sneak of Grand Cherokee; b) buy time to build a total Explorer with an air bag and a V-8 engine; and c) cater to Fordophiles who seem not to have heard about the recession.

"We examined Explorer trade-ins and found they included BMWs and Acuras," said Ford spokesman John Clinard. "That told us we were getting upscale buyers and that we could go upscale with the Explorer."

Exploring upscale translates to a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $27,422, which is the most expensive flagship ever built by Ford. Also the first time anything with "utility" in its job description has been a flagship.

For that you get--shades of yore--integrated running boards to shorten the traditional climb between doorsill and ground. Grille, bumper fasciae and moldings are keyed to body colors. The wheels--shod with OWL all-terrain tires--look to be carved from solid billets of aluminum with a hint of wire spokes.

Standard are low-back seats coupled to power adjustment with a three-memory system. They are upholstered in leather that looks smarter on seats than it ever did on the cows. Front seats are fully reclining, back seats fully flattening and there's ample room for five occupants--more room, in fact, than the Jeep Grand Cherokee because the spare is stowed beneath the vehicle, not inside the cargo bay.

In reminding buyers that they are stepping up to a much more luxurious platform, few touches were ignored. There are huge cup holders with cutouts for coffee mug handles. A full complement of trays, pockets and boxes for maps, sunglasses and garage-door openers. Ritz-Carlton carpeting with Limited embroidered in the pile. Auto-dimming rearview mirror and reading lights and a compass in the overhead console.

The standard Explorer power train remains, a 4.0-liter V-6 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission and developing 160 horsepower.

*

Despite an enormous and expanding popularity, sport utilities continue to be clubbed by purists who believe motorists wearing high heels or suits have no business behind the wheel of a truck. Even if a liberated woman's place is now in a sport-ute, why should entering one be similar to climbing bleachers?

And die-hard automobilists believe compromises that must be made in building a hybrid truck and car are about as gross as genetically engineering tie-dyed penguins.

They have a point. Combining the best of both fields without including the worst of either is a perennial struggle for Jeep, Ford, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, et al. It is also a challenge unconquered.

Owners accept that their design purpose dictates sport utilities must be built tall to step high and slowly over God's lumpy gumbo. We know that whatever heightens a vehicle's profile must also fuzzy its center of gravity and handling. And nobody expects boulevard acceleration--nor great gas mileage--from a vehicle that also must produce enough strength to tug a dead rhinoceros from a sinkhole.

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