Is it a pickup truck or SUV? Judges and MACHINE DESIGN editors studied the Sport Trac during the two days of Best Ride and decided it was the perfect marriage of both vehicles. In the opinion of judges, it earned the distinction of Most Innovative Design.

But how well does such a large vehicle handle? A quick glance at its full body with attached bed might lead you to assume it would handle like a pickup truck. Looks can be deceiving. One judge labeled the handling "easy" with the feel of a much shorter vehicle. Actually, the Sport Trac is just 14.25 in. longer than the Explorer. Ford engineers strengthened the chassis by adding gussets to the longitudinal beams, as well as new tubular crossmembers and thicker frame side rails. According to Ed Molchany, brand manager, the stiffened frame and longer wheelbase makes for a smoother and better ride. "Most people look at the Sport Trac and think pickup. But when they drive the vehicle they're surprised at how well it handles and how well the weight is distributed." Actually, the Explorer Sport Trac 4 X 2 weighs in at 4,103 lb, only 258 more pounds than the four-door Explorer 4 X 2.

Judges also noted some of the unusual features of the Sport Trac.

First and foremost is the sheet molding-composite truck bed. SMC is 20% lighter than traditional steel boxes. The vinyl-ester, glass-fiber composite tolerates scratches and dents better than steel, and is corrosionproof to boot. And for the judges who were concerned about hauling golf clubs, an optional stainless-steel cargo cage pivots 180° to sit on the lowered tailgate, adding 22.6 in. to the 29.6 cu ft of cargo space. In the battle of NVH, the floor of the passenger compartment is lined with rubber rather than carpet. The rubber layer, coupled with a 1-in.-thick padding, is said to better keep out road noise. Berber carpet mats add yet another layer of insulation to squelch road rumble. Two sheets of steel sandwiched with a viscous material that runs from the foot well to the instrument panel insulates against road noise. Thick seals on the bottom of door openings and padding in the A, B, and C-pillars minimize wind noise. Under the Sport Trac a switch from solid rubber body mounts to microcellular urethane mounts proved effective at halving lowfrequency rumble. The urethane is lighter and more durable as well.

Powering the Sport Trac is a 4.0-liter SOHC V6, providing 205 hp at 5,250 rpm and 240 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 rpm. Either a five-speed automatic or five-speed manual tranny mates to the V6. Adjustments to the powerplant made last fall include an all-new composite plastic intake for improved sound, revised pistons for lower hydrocarbon emissions, and aluminum main bearings for durability.

An independent torsion bar, SLA front suspension compliments two-stage variable leaf springs in the rear. With light loads, the primary leaf springs keep the ride smooth. For heavier loads, the second, stiffer leaf touches the first to maintain a smooth ride. The 4 X 2 model uses a 30-mm front stabilizer bar, 32-mm for the 4 X 4. Both models have a 19.5-mm rear stabilizer bar. Vented disc brakes on 12-in. rotors in the front and 11-in. rear drums improve braking performance and durability.

Other clever touches that were hits with judges include the power rear window. A quick turn to the control knob on the instrument panel lowers the window completely, and a light push vents the window 1.5 in. Also, the center console is a removable nylon bag with an adjustable shoulder strap. White dials with black markings on the instrument panel drew favorable comments as well.