It seems to be as tall as an Expedition, at least that was my estimation when passing one on the highway. But it's not just its higher stance that makes the Explorer stand out.

For starters, the Explorer rides on a fully boxed frame with an independent-rear suspension (IRS) rather than a solid axle. Rear half-shafts fit through portholes in the frame rails instead of underneath, dropping the vehicle nearly 7 in. and freeing up enough space for a third-row seat (a $670 option). The IRS soaks up bumps in the road, improving ride quality and handling. Up front, a SLA suspension using a coil-over-shock design replaces torsion bars. According to Ford, switching from torsion bars to coil springs cuts rough-road steering-column shake and ride harshness by letting components absorb impact forces when wheels hit sharp bumps.

Our test vehicle carried an optional aluminum 4.6-liter V8 which boasts 240 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. This powerplant replaces a 5.0-liter V8, and adds an extra 25 horses. The standard engine, a 4.0-liter V6, packs 210 hp with 250 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic transmission transfers more torque through its wide gear ratios. For example, first gear has a 3.26 ratio compared to the previous 2.47.

Control Trac four-wheel drive runs automatically or, with the push of a button on the dash, switches between high and low. As luck would have it, I got to try out high mode during a sudden snowstorm. The front and rear driveshafts lock together for better traction. The shift from auto to high was, as Ford engineers claim, undetectable, but the firmer grip on the slippery roads quickly became apparent.

Because the Explorer is a family vehicle, I drove to Pennsylvania to borrow my sister's family to test it out. The Explorer has plenty of space for my sister, brother-in-law, two nieces complete with car seats, and me. In fact, Emma, my four-year-old niece, insisted she needed her own "space," so we put her in the third row where she had plenty of room, complete with a cupholder for her juice. A six-disc in-dash CD player (a $395 option) helped keep us adults amused. The only complaint from the peanut gallery was that the leather seats were rather chilly. On the plus side, the optional reverse-sensing system helped in tight parking lots, giving ample warnings when getting too close to unseen obstacles.

Mileage estimates are what would be expected for a vehicle this size 19 highway/14 city. So, what's the damage for a vehicle like this? Base price is $29,745 and, with optional equipment and destination charges, the final tally comes to $34,910. And, for the record, if I had the means I would buy this vehicle in a heartbeat.

Sherri Koucky