At first sight, the Ford Expedition looks like it's going to be a handful. By most automotive standards, it's a large vehicle -- just under 6.5-ft tall so most people can't see over it. The SUV holds seven passengers with luggage without feeling cramped, and it has the horsepower to pull an 8,900-lb load. But despite the size and mass, the Expedition is as nimble as a sedan.
You might think get-up-and-go would suffer on such a large truck. Wrong again. The 5.4-liter V8, rated at 260 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm, has plenty of guts for entering busy freeways.
Thank goodness we had a few snowy days to test Ford's four-wheel-drive system, AdvanceTrac. The system improves stability by automatically applying brake force to individual wheels to help control skids and spins. My test was to goose it while on a snow-covered street, resulting in a faster take off than is possible in the family minivan.
Just driving is a pleasant experience. It rides comfortably and smoothly with little road noise and good directional stability. Ford says the new steering system is twice as stiff as the previous recirculating-ball design. There is no free play at the center of the steering-wheel travel. Steering-system components weigh 22 lb less than the previous model, improving response by reducing inertia within the system.
More ride comfort comes from a stiffer body thanks to hydroformed components. The metalworking technique creates bends without weakened stress points. The overall result is a frame with a 70% improvement in torsional rigidity and 67% more bending stiffness. Even the engine is attached with hydraulic mounts to absorb powertrain vibrations. Air springs on the rear suspension will be available in later models. The new independent-rear suspension reduces unsprung mass by 110 lb, compared to the live axle of the previous model.
A few additional features deserve mention. For instance, the third row of seats folds out of sight at the touch of a switch. That's a bit much for my tastes because folding a seat is not much of a challenge. The sunroof was a bit out of synch with the season but I've found it helps illuminate the cabin on overcast days. And a six-disc CD changer between the front seats is convenient. Big side-view mirrors improve visibility when driving and parking.
A couple dubious options could be omitted. The navigation system, for instance, still takes too much study. A button labeled Here tells where you are and that could be useful when lost. However, programming a route from one place to another takes too much button work. Beside, who would head off to an ill-defined location without a map? And the DVD player for back-seat passengers seems like a good concept. The problem is, shouldn't passengers be enjoying the scenery or talking to others? My guess is that it will be used to keep the kids quiet -- w
ithout encouraging conversation or reading.
The safety of these somewhat larger vehicles has recently come into question. After a week of highway driving and rush-hour traffic, I'm convinced they are no more a hazard than any other car. There is, however, a phenomenon that could be trouble. People driving small cars kept cutting in front of me regardless of how much room was available. They became the hazard.
The big question to answer is: Would I buy one? Probably not. But I can see that a family or group with something to tow would find the Expedition a comfortable and useful vehicle. --