The 2H mode gives maximum economy for highway driving. The clutch and drive chain inside the transfer case disengage, saving wear and reducing drag. Integrated wheel ends disconnect the front drivetrain at the wheel hubs to avoid "back driving" the front half shafts, differential, and driveshaft.

A drive through a snaky, dog-sled trail let us see what the Expedition could do in the snow. Thanks to ControlTrac in A4WD (automatic four-wheel drive), I was able to navigate the slippery, snow-caked trail without crashing into the mountainside

A fully boxed, electrocoated frame carries hydroformed rails and laser-cut, through-welded crossmembers. According to Ford, torsional rigidity jumped 70% compared to the previous frame. Coil-over-shock, double-wishbone suspensions front and rear work with a new variable-assist power rack-and-pinion steering for crisp handling. The independent rear suspension cuts unsprung mass by 110-lb compared with the previously used live-axle design.

The porthole-in-frame design, a variation of the one carried by the 2002 Ford Explorer, allows 9 in. of wheel travel. Vertical ovals cut into rear-frame rails give the axles ample room to move, providing better response over rough pavement and when off-roading. Driving the Expedition through downtown Vancouver gave firsthand experience on how it handles city streets. Though the Expedition is large, it drives like a car, smoothing over bumps in the road and easily maneuvering lane changes.

For stopping power, 13-in. front and 13.5-in. rear rotors, along with stiffer calipers, are said to improve pedal feel, reduce fade, and give shorter stopping distances. I had more than one occasion to make quick stops while navigating the city streets and am happy to report the Expedition stopped quickly, without any excessive dive.

The Expedition is powered by a 4.6-liter V8 producing 232 hp at 4,750 rpm and 291 lb-ft of torque at 3,450 rpm. An optional 5.4-liter V8 has an extra 28 horses, or 260 hp, and 350 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm. The 5.4-liter powerplant's cast-iron block has two hydraulic engine mounts. The 4.6-liter engine uses an aluminum block with hydraulic and conventional solid rubber mounts. Ford engineers tweaked the mounts, turning the blocks into tuned mass dampers that absorb chassis resonance.

The independent rear suspension reduces unsprung mass by 110 lb. Cast-aluminum upper and lower control arms provide strength and reduce weight. The cast-iron differential bolts to a crossmember, becoming part of the vehicle's sprung mass.

To battle NVH, structural foam gives the 2003 Expedition a stiffer shell, as well as keeps noise out of the passenger cabin. Thirty-five pounds of structural foam is pumped as a slurry into areas such as the joints at the top of the B-pillars, at the top and bottom of the D-pillars, and in underbody channels. A 15% thicker windshield cuts wind noise by five sones. Also, the 2003 Expedition's Cd was reduced to 0.41 from 0.44 thanks to exterior styling changes. Air leaks in the cabin were corrected with expandable foam, heavier sealing, and patches. On the underbody, 10 mounts isolate the passenger compartment from road and engine vibrations. Front and rear mounts on both sides of the cabin have two concentric tubes, one bolted to the frame, the other to the body structure, with rubber bonded between the tubes. The rubber bushings are encased in metal to protect against deterioration.

Thanks to the independent rear suspension, the Expedition's third-row seat folds flat to the floor with the push of a button (an option on the Eddie Bauer edition). Having previously hauled out the third-row seat of a 2001 Expedition (at a hefty 85 lb) and putting it back sans assistance, I'm a big fan of this new feature.

To quell safety concerns, the Personal Safety System includes front air bags tailored to crash severity, driver-seat track position, and seat-belt usage; safety-belt pretensioners; load-limiting retractors; and buckle sensors. An optional Safety Canopy inflates to protect front and second-row passengers in side impacts. The canopy deploys when the angular-rate sensor determines the truck is about to roll over, based on the degree and rate of body roll. The canopy remains inflated for 6 sec. Tire-pressure sensors in valve stems use radio waves to communicate with a receiving module that monitor the tires, including the spare, and detect sensor failure as well, notifying the driver by flashing a warning in the message center. Four-wheel ABS with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) uses data from the ABS sensors to prevent rear-wheel lockup. If lockup is sensed, based on minute differences in wheel speeds, the EBD redirects brake force within 7 msec to maintain traction. Brake Assist continuously monitors the speed and distance of brake-pedal travel and boosts hydraulic pressure during panic stops.

More good news no price increase for the 2003 Expedition. Base price for the XLT remains $31,295, while the Eddie Bauer Series sees a $110 price increase to $41,935. Also worth noting: fuel economy has been improved by 1 mpg in both city and highway driving over the 2002 model. In the world of large SUVs, every little bit counts.

-Sherri Koucky