SUV of the YearWhile it’s true that gas prices continue to mimic the actions of a blowfish, there’s no escaping the fact that American families still need spacious, versatile vehicles capable of carrying kids, dogs, and loads of goods from Costco. As maligned as they may currently be, SUVs are a necessity for many, and the best of this year’s batch is the 2006 Ford Explorer. With a fresh new look and an attractively revised interior mounted to an all-new frame and fresh engine choices, Ford’s top-selling sport utility vehicle effectively clears the Firestone tire debacle from the slate and moves confidently forward.
For 2006, the Ford Explorer is available in familiar XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited trims on rear- or four-wheel-drive platforms. The base engine, a 210-horsepower V6, has been carried over but now meets ULEV-II emissions standards – making it almost as clean a machine as the Escape Hybrid. The Explorer’s optional 4.6-liter V8 gets a bump from 239 to 292 horsepower, and without a hit to fuel economy. Inside, there’s seating for up to seven passengers, and all models benefit from standard power features and stability and traction control systems. Upper trims add alloy wheels, an upgraded sound system, and some offer upscale chrome and woodgrain trim accents. Base prices range from about $27,000 to $36,000, but for a bit more buyers can get adjustable foot pedals, second-row bucket seats, a third-row bench seat, side-curtain airbags, a rear DVD entertainment system, and more. And for those weekends at the lake or campground, the 2006 Ford Explorer can tow up to 7,300 pounds.
Out on the open road the Explorer is a comfortable cruiser, providing a nice balance between responsiveness and a controlled, compliant ride, and the 2006 model is much quieter than the SUV it replaces. The Explorer also holds its own performing light off-road duty, which is all most buyers want anyway.
With its attractive new styling, versatile interior, truck-like abilities, and comfortable ride, the 2006 Ford Explorer reaffirms the benefits of the sport utility vehicle, and as such, wins our Autobytel Editors' Choice Award for the Best SUV of 2006. – Thom Blackett