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TRUCK OF THE YEAR: Ford improves iconic Explorer with better mileage, shiny grille

Photos buy Global Auto Index

The 2006 Ford Explorer had improved fuel economy, lower emissions and a vastly better interior.

2006 Ford Explorer
Rear- or four-wheel-drive, five- or seven-seat midsize SUV
Base price: $26,530 (excluding destination charge)
EPA fuel economy: 15 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway (V6 or V8, rear-drive models)
Drivetrain: Standard 4.0-liter 210-horsepower SOHC V6 and five-speed automatic transmission. Optional 4.6-liter SOHC 292-horsepower V8 engine and six-speed automatic transmission.
Assembled in: Louisville, Ky., and St. Louis

The Explorer created the SUV boom, and it's been the best-selling SUV in the world for 15 years. It's become an icon, with millions of satisfied owners.

Ford has plenty of reasons to believe it nailed the formula for a midsize SUV with the old Explorer, so the new model is almost exactly the same size and looks very much like its predecessor.

The only obvious visual change is its shiny new chrome grille and big, bright headlights.

The new Explorer's virtues are much more than skin deep.

Fuel economy is up, emissions are down, and the interior is vastly better. It's always tricky replacing an icon, and Ford concentrated on improving the previous Explorer's weaknesses with the all-new 2006 model.

Explorer prices start at $26,530 for an XLS V6 rear-drive model. V8 Explorers begin with the XLT at $29,425, and the least expensive four-wheel-drive Explorer is a V6-powered XLT stickering at $30,450. All prices exclude destination charges.

The new V8 engine, mated to a smooth six-speed automatic transmission, produces 53 more horsepower but 10% better fuel economy than the previous model. The base V6 engine's emissions are down an amazing 74% from the 2005 model and are certified to the same federal standard as Ford's gasoline-electric Escape hybrid SUV.

At the encouragement of a fellow North American Truck of the Year juror, I drove a V8 Explorer and the gasoline-electric hybrid back to back over the same route.

The Explorer came within 1.5 m.p.g. of the heralded hybrid, cost less and could tow more than twice as much as the heralded hybrid.

Ford recently unveiled a new corporate slogan called American innovation.

I'm not quite sure what that means, but any company that can give me more power, lower fuel consumption and fewer emissions qualifies as a major innovator in my book.

In addition, the Explorer features a wide array of safety features, including many that no other midsize SUV offers. Standard safety features include antilock brakes, rollover-preventing stability control and front-seat side air bags. The front doors also feature a hefty four-inch foam block to protect occupants in a side impact.

On the road, the Explorer is smooth, comfortable and eerily quiet.

Ford's data show there's considerably less road and wind noise in the Explorer's front seat than in competitors like the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Pathfinder.

In fact, there's less noise in the third seat of an Explorer than in the front seat of a 4Runner, according to Ford's tests.

In addition, the interior looks and feels as luxurious as it sounds. The carefully selected materials and sophisticated design build upon the strides Ford made developing its F-150 pickup.

Like the F-150, the Explorer maintains its workhorse ability while raising the standard for comfort. The Explorer can tow up to 7,300 pounds, and its second and third rows of seats fold within two degrees of flat to accommodate cargo.

The Explorer is the only midsize SUV with an optional power-folding third seat.

While I wish Ford had taken a few more chances with the looks of the new Explorer, its engineers blew the doors off the competition with substantive improvements that make the Explorer the best midsize SUV on the road.

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