Chevrolet created the best of the new breed in the Avalanche, a modified Suburban with a short pickup bed that could be extended into the cabin when five-passenger seating capacity was not needed. Ford responded with the smaller, less expensive Explorer-based Sport Trac, which countered Chevy's innovative design with a rugged, plastic-composite cargo box, a tailgate extender, and a rear cab window that could be lowered completely into the rear bulkhead. For 2007, the Explorer Sport Trac and the Avalanche are completely redesigned, each sticking to their original formulas but adding refinement and power to the mix. This proves an unfortunate strategy for Ford. Added refinement means added cost, the addition of a V8 engine is poorly timed with record oil prices, and not only has Ford decided against copying the Chevy's slick “midgate” design to extend the cargo bed into the cabin, it has ditched the trick roll-down rear window of the previous model. The end result is, like the El Caminos and Rancheros that came before it, a vehicle that is too much of a compromise to be worth investigation except by a small, and likely unprofitable, segment of the populace. But that doesn't mean the 2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac doesn't have its redeeming features.
If you're still reading, you must be interested. The Explorer Sport Trac is a comfortable, refined five-passenger SUV melded with a tough, rugged cargo box that's designed to get dirty. The sheet molded composite cargo box is 4.5-feet long and is separate from the passenger cabin, unlike the integrated cargo box for the Avalanche. Lined for extra durability, the Sport Trac's bed boasts two-tier storage ability, an optional hard tonneau cover, three integrated bins with drain plugs, and is dent proof. It also resists scratches, and has meaty tie-down hooks on the outside to secure a load. The optional tubular aluminum cargo cage is used as a divider inside the bed or a bed extender with the tailgate lowered.
Because the Sport Trac has moved to the current Explorer SUV frame for 2007, it is a whopping 444-percent stiffer than the old model, and gets an independent rear suspension as well as softer shock tuning for improved ride and handling characteristics. The standard engine is a German-made 4.0-liter V6 that makes 210 horsepower and emits fewer smog-forming pollutants than a Honda Accord Hybrid, according to Ford. The optional 4.6-liter V8 is a dual-overhead cam unit shared with the Mustang GT, making 292 horsepower and connected to a six-speed automatic transmission. Choose a Sport Trac with 4WD and you'll get Ford's automatic Control Trac system with a torque-multiplying 4WD Low gear set. Hauling capacity includes a tow rating of 5,310 pounds and a payload capacity of 1,450 pounds for the V6 while the V8 manages a 6,800-pound trailer and 1,390 pounds of people of cargo. Rack-and-pinion steering, a four-wheel-disc antilock braking system with electronic brake-force distribution, and Advance Trac stability control with Roll Stability Control are also onboard.
Identical to the Explorer SUV from the B-pillars forward, the Sport Trac is 16.8 inches longer and has a similar interior. As in the previous model, rubber covers the floor underneath Berber carpeted mats, but now there's a new console-mounted gear selector designed to resemble that in the Sport Trac's big brother, the F-150. Safety equipment includes dual-stage front airbags with occupant sensing, front side-impact airbags, a tire pressure monitoring system, and an optional Safety Canopy system of side-curtain airbags.
Ford offers the 2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac in two trim levels: XLT and Limited. The XLT model includes standard features such as air conditioning; a stereo with CD/MP3 playing capability; power windows, door locks, and mirrors; remote keyless entry, cruise control; and 16-inch aluminum wheels. Adding the V8 engine to the XLT also brings dark tinted glass, a Class II trailer towing hitch, tie-down hooks for the cargo bed, and bed storage compartments. Step up to the Explorer Sport Trac Limited and you get 18-inch machined-finish wheels, automatic headlights, fog lights, monochrome exterior trim, upgraded interior décor, and a power-adjustable driver's seat.
A variety of options is available on the Sport Trac. Those, ahem, limited to the Limited model include two-tone leather upholstery, a 10-way power driver's seat, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo and climate systems. Either model can be equipped with an Audiophile sound system with a six-disc CD changer, Sirius satellite radio, a moonroof, power adjustable foot pedals, a towing package, a bed extender, a hard tonneau cover, and a heated windshield.
We test drove a well-equipped 2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac Limited with 4WD and the 4.6-liter V8 engine. Our pickup packed a Convenience Package, an Electronics Package, and other highlights like the Safety Canopy side-curtain airbags, the Audiophile sound system, the hard tonneau cover for the bed, the leather upholstery, and the heated windshield. The sticker on our truck was $33,630 including the $695 destination charge.
Back on pavement, those same tires offer decent grip, and the Sport Trac features predictable handling thanks to a suspension that soaks up all the bumps and dips in the road. The brake pedal feels good underfoot, and it's easy to bring the Sport Trac to a smooth stop. Steering is numb with noticeable play on center and responds in linear fashion off center, but effort levels feel too high at slow speeds. The Explorer Sport Trac is long, making it hard to maneuver in cramped parking lots or on tight trails. The turning circle is reasonably tight for such a long truck, but you'll still need plenty of space for manuevering.
Fun to Drive
Once seated, the driver finds a soft center console and door panel armrest, but the upper door panel is hard plastic which is no good for elbows. However, that upper part of the panel offers a wide expanse on which to rest an arm. The Sport Trac's steering wheel is thick and nicely padded, making it a pleasure to grip. Unfortunately, the locations of the door grips and door releases are awkward to use every time you exit the car or climb in and shut the door. Ford says it is going to redesign the door panels in a future iteration of the Sport Trac.
Assuming that an Explorer Sport Trac buyer cares about none of these issues, he will find a useful vehicle equipped with giant tie-down cleats, a swiveling bed extender, small integrated bed storage compartments, and a cargo box that is easy to clean. Loading is easy once you clear the liftover height, though we'd like to see grocery bag hooks integrated either on the bed extender, on the tailgate, or in the rear seat. If you need additional cargo space than the box will allow, the Explorer Sport Trac's rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split to create a hard floor.
On the outside, our test Explorer Sport Trac's assembly quality could have stood improvement. There was a major alignment issue between the front fascia/grille and the chrome garnish on the hood. Door gaps were inconsistent from side to side, the rubber molding fit sloppily on each side at the B-pillars, the plastic trim on top of the bed and on the rear bumper was loose and easy to pull off, and both the hood and tailgate were misaligned. Panel gaps weren't particularly tight on this thing, either.
Inside, the Explorer Sport Trac is jarring. For example, just on the driver's side of the interior, there are five different colors and patterns to the plastic covering the dash and the A-pillars. With all these different parts and pieces, there are numerous panel joints which make the dashboard look too busy. The chrome surrounds for the gauge cluster and the vents look nice, but create bright glare in the windows. I give kudos, however, to the double-barreled gauge design and the two-tone seat upholstery.
Is the 2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac a truck or an SUV? Upon first glance, the Sport Trac looks like any other four-door truck, but with one glaring difference – a truck bed that is strangely truncated. Ignoring this defect, the Sport Trac has a handsome body style sharply accented with a chrome grille and sporty roof rails. The optional, reinforced tonneau cover is heavy and difficult to open, though the tailgate cage flips out with ease.
In contrast with its pleasing exterior, the interior design is a mish-mash of polka dot, nubbed, and oily looking plastics which strained to look futuristic but merely seemed cheap and chaotic. In addition, the door handle is placed at an incongruous angle below the arm rest, which strains the wrist. With a hop up into the driver's seat, there's a clear view through the front windshield and the gauges are within handy range. No such SUV-like comforts for the backseat passengers with inadequate thigh support and barely there padding.
Once in gear, the Sport Trac leaves no doubt of its origin as an SUV with easy handling in sharp turns and city congestion, though the steering feels disconnected from the road. As a strange melding of the comforts and discomforts of a truck and SUV, the Ford Explorer Sport Trac takes an adequate stab at being the jack of all trades but is the master of none.
Price of Test Vehicle: $33,630 (including the $695 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 4.6-liter V8
Engine Horsepower: 292 at 5,750 rpm
Engine Torque: 300 lb.-ft. at 3,950 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Curb weight, lbs.: 4,793
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 14/20 mpg
Observed Fuel Economy: 13.4 mpg
Length: 210.2 inches
Width: 73.7 inches
Wheelbase: 130.5 inches
Height: 72.5 inches
Leg room (front/rear): 42.4/36.9 inches
Head room (front/rear): 39.8/38.5 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: Five
Max. Towing Capacity: 6,640 lbs.
Max. Payload Capacity: 1,350 lbs.
Competitors: Chevrolet Avalanche, Chevrolet Colorado, Dodge Dakota, Honda Ridgeline, Isuzu i-350, Mitsubishi Raider, Nissan Frontier, Subaru Baja, Toyota Tacoma
Photos courtesy of Ford Motor Company and Ron Perry