Lifestyle

Ford's Sport Trac on Right Track


Explorersporttrac_2007
Editor's Rating: star rating

The Sport Trac is half-SUV, half-truck, and all-American. Despite being thirsty, it's big, powerful, and even reasonably practical

Up Front

Car designers have long had a curious inclination toward mixing and matching traditional cabins with pickup-style flatbeds. Since the late 1950s, that "what if?" urge has created and sustained an odd auto niche that just won't go away: that other hybrid, the half-car, half-truck.

Sure, in the age of the remix and the mashup, the idea more than makes sense. But the results—from classics like the Ford Ranchero and the legendary Chevrolet El Camino to failed revivals a la the Subaru Baja—have mostly been schizophrenic, awkward-looking vehicles that end up, in practice, somehow less than the sum of their parts.

Ford (F) helped pioneer the idea of automotive halfsies and came back to it in 2001 with the introduction of a split-personality Ford Explorer that was business in the front, a cabin, and party in the back, a flatbed. Dubbed the Sport Trac, that truck was rough around the edges, marginally underpowered, and a quick hit, with waiting lists growing to as long as three months.

But now, with gas prices and environmental concerns conspiring against truck-based SUVs left and right, the house of Explorer is in trouble. Combined sales of all Explorer models are down 25% for the year, according to Automotive News. Overall, Ford truck sales are down 14.4%.

That's really too bad, because the 2007 Sport Trac is the best version Ford has yet produced. It's roomier, safer, more powerful, and easier to drive than past versions, making it an extremely attractive model so long, that is, as fuel economy isn't important to you. If it is, read no further.

Like the regular Explorer (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/1/06, "Ford's Explorer Loses Its Way"), which is also the best it's ever been, the Sport Trac's gas mileage is cause for concern. The V8 that I tested is rated to get between 14 mpg and 20 mpg. In mixed highway, city, and mild off-road driving, I averaged 13.7 mpg—yikes! Even in a class with famously terrible fuel economy, numbers like those should give prospect buyers reason to think twice before buying an SUV.

Though it can get pricey—depending on the options one tacks on—the Sport Trac offers a lot of half-SUV, half-truck for the money. A bare-bones Sport Trac with a V6 will set you back just over $24,000. But the upmarket V8 Limited 4x4 edition, which I tested, has a reasonable base price of $29,540. Ford's individual options are priced very conservatively, but a liberal run through them can balloon the final cost. My test vehicle was loaded.

It featured $195 convenience package; $595 electronics package; $560 safety canopy system; $225 class III trailer towing; $2,505 navigation system; $245 power sliding rear window; $150 power adjustable pedals; $195 cargo cage and bed extender; $255 reverse sensing system; $195 satellite radio; $595 hard tonneau cover; $995 two-tone leather bucket seats; and $1,295 rear-seat DVD player. The grand total with $695 destination charge: $38,240.

That price, I admit, seemed rather high for the intended crowd—active youths, sporty enough to use a flatbed recreationally. But on second glance, it's easy to shave about $3,500 off that price and still end up with a bawdy V8 with class-III towing, navigation, supplemental safety systems, and more. In other words, not bad at all.

Behind the Wheel

Because it's not much thirstier than the V6 (on paper, at any rate), the 4.6-liter V8 is a real winner. It produces 292 horses, not enough to make the 4,793 lbs. feel nimble exactly, but plenty to make high-speed passing and merging into fast traffic a breeze.

As with the Explorer SUV, the Sport Trac handles much better than it ever has. The new frame the two vehicles share is as much as 444% stiffer than the previous incarnation and finally features an independent rear suspension. That means driving this generation of truck-based SUVs is much more like driving a car than a rattling, quivering bucket of bolts.

The updated-for-the-millennium 2007 Sport Trac has a more polished style, and that's O.K. I like the upgraded looks, some themes lifted from the new Explorer and others adopted from the F-150. The front grill is chromed out and sits nicely between the new jarhead headlamps. From the side, the flatbed gives the truck distinctive haunches that do look sportier than your average pickup.

Speaking of the flatbed, how useful can one be if so truncated? Pretty useful, it turns out. Though not as capacious as those found on full-size trucks, the Sport Trac's bed is great if you've got lots of recreation equipment to haul around on weekends, like fishing or camping gear, mountain bikes, or just a couple of coolers. For heavy-duty applications, the Sport Trac won't replace a full-size truck. But the shortened bed with the bed extender is remarkably versatile.

The interior has been cribbed from the new Explorer, which is great. Everything in the cabin feels solid and well put together. Controls are intuitive and the navigation system is notable for being rather easy to use without being distracting while driving. The seats in front are comfortable, and even the rear bench is reasonable. Passenger room abounds, thankfully.

The Sport Trac's gotten quite a bit safer to drive as well. Explorers, with their unflattering safety history, have compensated with a surplus of new technologies. Stability control is now standard on all Sport Tracs to reduce the incidence of rollovers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that system has reduced the likelihood from 34.8% to 21%.

Crash-wise, the Sport Trac earns five-star ratings in every category tested by the NHTSA. Side-impact air bags are standard in the front for both the driver and passenger. And the optional safety canopy system can deploy additional, cocooning air bags in the event of a rollover.

Buy It or Bag It?

Undoubtedly, the Sport Trac is a best-of-breed in the awkward land of half-x, half-y vehicles. It, unlike most of its cohorts, actually manages to add up to more than the sum of its parts. And do so in an attractive, well-priced, and well-powered package.

The fuel consumption is, obviously, the major tripping point. As versatile and good-looking as this new Sport Trac is, it's hard to get past those dismal numbers.

But anyone still unfazed by fuel costs—whether on environmental or financial grounds—and thinking about buying an Explorer—or, for that matter, a Dodge Dakota or Nissan (NSANY) Frontier—should carefully consider the model.

Click here to find out more about the 2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac.


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