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Beachfront condo

The GMC Explorer lets you relax: comfy chairs, satellite TV. But try steering your living room into a turn.

November 23, 2005|Chris Erskine | Times Staff Writer

WELCOME to the Michelin Man's rec room. Sit back in one of the marshmallow seats. Kick off your Keds.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, where mass transit figures into so many lives, the GMC Explorer Van might be the ultimate ride, a big rollicking party on wheels, complete with a Vegas-style chandelier, high ceiling and a 26inch high-def television on which the kids can catch the Macy's parade while you wait for traffic to clear on the I-5, your brood three hours behind schedule.

That's right, satellite TV in your car. After all, if you're going to be stuck on the interstate with four kids and a dog, you might as well have live TV, not to mention a cooler in your armrest. The Cowboy game comes on about 1. Please chug responsibly.

Of course, you'll avoid such urges. You should probably also avoid the urge to pick up passengers and deposit them at the airport, because when you turn up a side street, that's exactly what people will think you are: an airport shuttle service. This thing is really that big: a 135-inch wheelbase, 20 inches longer than full-size SUVs and a perch that feels like a lifeguard tower. At lights, you look down on Hummers and Suburbans, if you can imagine that. You probably can't.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 07, 2005 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Van review -- A review on the Explorer conversion van that ran in the Nov. 23 Highway 1 section incorrectly listed Delphi as the maker of the van's satellite TV system. The actual maker is KVH Industries.

But, lord, is this thing a hoot. We drove it for a week, to the beach and to the butcher, and round and round the Vons parking lot looking for a space big enough. The Explorer van enters a parking lot the way Shaquille O'Neal enters a nightclub, taking up more space than is justified, creating a bit of blingy stir.

"You've got ESPN?" a friend marvels when spotting football on the big screen.

And the USC game. And "The Apprentice." And "Desperate Housewives." (They're everywhere, trust me.) Most car entertainment systems offer DVDs and game stations. This big, overstuffed bus offers a Delphi satellite dish atop its very high extended roof.

The GMC Explorer van is basically the ultimate aftermarket product. Born at a GM plant, it begins life as a basic $30,000 cargo van before being shipped to Explorer headquarters in Warsaw, Ind., where techs turn it into your college son's vision of what his dorm room should look like.

Out go the regular dash, seats and surface components. In come such luxe touches as a tri-fold power sofa bed, six-CD changer, window valances and loads of indirect lighting.

This primp-my-ride remake also includes Scotchgarded fabrics and carpets, TV and video game hookups and reclining captain chairs. And oh, those chairs, as comfortable as any living room recliner, overstuffed and skinned with Scandinavian glove leather, which Explorer touts as the most expensive auto grade leather in the world.

Add in the high-gloss wood surrounds -- your choice, walnut or Denali -- and you're looking at price tags around $50,000, in the ballpark of full-size luxury SUVs such as the Navigator and the Escalade.

Some finished vans are ordered by GM dealers around the nation. Along with Regency and Starcraft, Explorer is one of a few companies doing such high-end conversions on a big scale and perhaps the most dominant in the West. Customers can also order custom upgrades directly from the Indiana plant.

Our weeklong test drive allowed a full SoCal assault. We took it on family trips to the beach, loading up coolers, boogie boards and six people -- some models seat up to nine -- with room to spare. Quick-release captain chairs can come out for added cargo space, but we never reached that point. In back, the passengers tinkered with DVDs while powering up the flat screen TV and eight-speaker surround-sound system. When we got back, we pulled out the standard-equipment portable vacuum in back and quickly swept up the beach we'd brought home. Easy.

Though the fine folks at Explorer like to promote this as an everyday vehicle, it turned out to be a chore to drive on short hops to the store and school. Though quiet -- the conversion crews shove aircraft insulation in every nook and door panel -- the ride is soft and bus-like. The van sways on its truck chassis: coil springs on the front with semi-elliptic multi-leaf springs in the back. The Explorer never feels unsure, just too genial and forgiving.

As with all full-size vans, visibility is an issue and every hard right is an adventure in pure physics. How do you get this long wheel base into driveways designed for nothing much bigger than a Taurus?

And you know that pause-and-think moment big vehicles usually experience before entering a turn? On crowded streets, the Explorer wants to hesitate almost every time, to pre-think the turn. My wife hated it for car pool tripping or quick jaunts to the video store.

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