—Patrick G. Mahoney

This is one ruggedly handsome ride, an elegant big box built for anyone with lots of garage and $45K burning a hole in their pocket. As a bonus, the $195 in change you'll get back from that $45K can fill the 22.5-gallon tank about three times.

On the exterior of this rolling pleasure palace, there's little not to like: 17-in. painted wheels, three-bar chrome grille, Pueblo-gold bumpers, wheel-lip molding and running board, front fog lamps, and a liftgate with flip-up glass.

Inside, you'll find amenities that belie the rugged exterior. It sports a leather-trimmed, 10-way, power driver's seat; a 60/40 rear bench that comfortably seats two adults; and steering wheel-mounted cruise control that helps eke out the 14/20 (city/highway) mpg. The woodgrain trim accents are a nice touch.

Luckily, I had no need to check out the Control Trac 4 4 system, but the four-wheel independent suspension provides a smooth, sure-footed ride. Other features on our model included Advancetrac with roll stability control (antilock brakes and traction control/stability technology), driver/front-passenger/side air bags with front-passenger sensing system, and adaptive front-seat belts.

If that's not enough, there's a tire-pressure-monitoring system, sideimpact door beams, child-seat tether anchor, antitheft system, and remote keyless entry.

A power-folding third-row seat, like several of the pricey features, seemed over the top to me. I could have raised or lowered the seat more quickly by hand. But for couch-potato drivers, what's another $1,340?

The ride is both comfortable and remarkably quiet. Ford engineers claim the Explorer's third row is as quiet as some competitors' front row. New insulation materials along the headliner, door panels, and floor of the passenger compartment help keep the interior quiet. Even the climate-control system is 30% quieter than in earlier models, according to Ford.

The optional three-valve 4.6-liter SOHC V8 has the same variable cam timing and three-valve cylinder heads used on the Mustang GT and the 5.4-liter Ford F-150 engine. In the Explorer, the 4.6-liter delivers 292 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. The power lets this SUV handle a 1,500-lb payload and tow up to 7,300 lb.

Base price is $33,625. But ours came with $10,535 in bells and whistles, including second-row sport bucket seats and second-row floor console ($795), side air curtains ($560), moonroof ($850), tow package ($150), 18-in. chromed wheels ($595), Eddie Bauer luxury group comprising heated outside mirrors, dual A/C, nav system, and steeringwheel audio and climate controls ($3,695), and auxiliary climate control ($650). A reverse sensing system alerts drivers to obstacles when backing up ($255). Tack on $645 (DDC) and you're out the door.