Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2000   by Jim Anderton

Ford Explorer Sport Trac

Tell Revenue Canada it's your work truck

All work and no play…it’s a very old axiom, and if you’re an auto service owner/operator you probably spend your spare time as far away from the bays as possible. It’s also probable that the vehicle that tows boats, snowmobiles and campers does double duty as a parts-getter for the shop. Need the ability to haul an engine, yet carry the family in the same vehicle? Ford’s Explorer Sport Trac is an option that comes squarely up the middle between conventional sport utility vehicles, where you share the passenger compartment with your cargo, and pickups, whose crew-cab models have some very long wheelbase and overall length dimensions.

From the “C” pillar forward, the Sport Trac is essentially an Explorer, seating five with a fold-down rear seat which can be configured for hauling people or cargo in multiple configurations. Ford’s 4.0 SOHC V-6 powers the truck, delivering 205 horsepower and 240-lb. ft. of torque at 3750 RPM. The overhead cams open two valves per cylinder, and are chain-driven, while the mixture is ignited by a distributorless ignition system. The engine uses a wide variety of materials, from cast iron in the block and crank, to aluminum for the heads and composite plastic for the intake manifold. While the power specs are good, the Sport Trac weighs 4400 pounds, and the fact that the vehicle accelerates strongly is due in large part to the most outstanding feature of the driveline: the transmission. The 5R55E electronically-controlled five speed shifts seamlessly between 2.47 first through 0.75 overdrive ratios, which, when teamed with the optional 4.10 limited slip axle, keeps the torque handy in both city driving and heavy hauling or trailering. Interestingly, the package returned 18 mpg in SSGM testing, both in highway and city driving, suggesting that aerodynamic drag is important, especially with an open bed and the tailgate up. Of course, driving style is an important factor, too.

Handling is on par with mid size sport utility vehicles; the Sport Trac is suspended by torsion bars in the front, and the ubiquitous leaf springs in the rear. Brakes are vented disc/drum, and are sized with an eye toward the vehicle’s 5000 pound towing capacity. The cabin is quiet, and the Firestone Wilderness AT’s (yes, those Firestones) performed well on both dry pavement and on the dirt. An interesting feature is the power backlight, the first we’ve seen since the 1964 full-size Mercurys. The 50-inch long bed was equipped with a clever flip-out tailgate extender, which adds about 18 inches to the overall bed length. The bed was also topped by a locking rigid tonneau on the SSGM test vehicle. The most important difference about the bed on the Explorer Sport Trac, however, is its construction. It’s made of sheet molding compound, or SMC, a material found in, among other applications, the late Pontiac Fiero. It’s tough and won’t rust, but long term exposure to oil and solvents is probably a bad idea, something to keep in mind when hauling the greasy stuff. Tie down points are numerous, so if that Lincoln Town Car “460” falls out, it’s no one’s fault but your own.

Faults? There aren’t many, but they’re probably worth a mention. Interior controls are a little small and awkward to handle, especially when wearing gloves, and the instrument panel, although complete, can be difficulty to read in some lighting conditions. And if you’re removing the rigid bed tonneau cover, consider leaving it off. It’s hernia heavy, and the cabin has plenty of lockable space anyway.

The SSGM test vehicle was loaded, and stickered at $39,260, which is considerable, but competitive. A quick look at the option sheet, however, suggests that the Explorer Sport Trac could be had for under $34,000 with four-wheel-drive. It’s not a pick-up, but a sport utility vehicle, so if you need a vehicle which can carry five, tow your bass boat, and haul a 351 Cleveland every once in a while, this one is worth a look, especially if your garage is length-challenged. And if Revenue Canada comes calling, you can tell them (with a straight face) that it’s your “work truck”. SSGM

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