The traditional sport-utility vehicle may have had a lot going for it a generation ago, but its truck-based roots really were not ideally suited for family use.
For that, the more recently developed car-based crossover vehicle is by far the better answer, and the 2013 Ford Explorer is a great example of how families can combine comfort and convenience in a package that has the practicality and aggressive design that they favor.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not down on the rugged, go-anywhere SUV. It's just that I have always considered it to be it a specialty vehicle. It makes a lot of sense for the seriously active lifestyle set --- hunters and fisherman, off-road adventurers, families that love boating, camping and wilderness hiking, etc., etc.
But, for the rest of us, whose requirements might range from hauling kids and toting groceries to the occasional trip to the big-box home-improvement center and the annual vacation, what we require is space, comfort, and at least a modicum of luxury.
What we get with the 2013 Ford Explorer, now in its third model year, is all of that. It is a world apart from what I recall of former Ford SUVs.
My first encounter with one was back in the ‘80s when a full-size Bronco arrived for my inspection. It was a brute in the outback, ready to take on seriously challenging terrain. The only thing the test vehicle was missing was a gun rack, a hunting dog and, maybe, a case of beer.
But, its on-road behavior was an abomination. The steering was loose, causing the big truck to wander on the interstates. It bucked and snorted over even minor road imperfections, gas mileage was miserable and stopping in a hurry could be a hair-raising experience.
Later, I spent time cruising around in right-sized, more sensible and wildly popular Ford Explorers. With each model upgrade, they made more and more practical sense and offered more luxury features, but it never was possible to engineer away their pickup-truck roots.
I'll admit that the Ford Expedition is a comfortable, luxurious vehicle, but it is huge. It can be a menace in a mall parking lot and who knows what the kids are doing way back in the third row.
Now we come to the totally rethought, re-engineered and refocused Ford Explorer. Built on a front-wheel-drive platform common to the Ford Taurus and several other corporate unibody models, it retains the command view that SUV lovers crave, yet it has much improved driving dynamics, a comfortable ride and a generous amount of cargo space.
On top of that, an available four-wheel-drive system can get most owners through the ravages of winter and, with 7.6 inches of ground clearance, can even take some of them off road with confidence under many conditions.
The Explorer presented for my examination was a three-row, six-passenger four-wheel-drive 2013 Ford Explorer Limited, an acceptably powerful tall wagon with a long list of luxury amenities and a hefty price tag of $46,860.
However, don't recoil at the price immediately. Buyers who want a sensibly equipped version of the new Explorer without all the glitz and glamour will find a base price of under $30,000.
The 2013 Ford Explorer is appropriately rugged-looking, with some saying the design hints at the Mercedes Benz ML SUVs and others finding a bit of Range Rover in the sheet metal. Whatever, the Explorer's styling is sufficiently individualistic to separate it visually from its competitors.
The power in the test vehicle comes from a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 engine boasting 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, it will propel the 4,700-pound Explorer from a stop to 60 mph in a bit over 8 seconds. It will also allow the Explorer to tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Fuel mileage is not its strong suit, with the EPA estimating 17 mpg around town and 23 mpg on the highway. I averaged slightly less than 19 miles per gallon of regular gasoline in relatively conservative driving with no more of a load in the car than me.
Ford also offers a front-wheel-drive Explorer with an optional 240-horsepower, 2-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that the EPA rates at 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway. I have not driven it, but some who have say the 4-cylinder engine is a bit overwhelmed by the Explorer's weight.
A third version, the four-door Explorer Sport, is now on sale with a turbocharged 3.5-liter, 365-horsepower V-6 engine that is plenty powerful but a little bit thirstier at an estimated 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway.
Out on the open road, the Explorer feels solid with a compliant suspension and acceptable handling. It's not exactly car-like, but it is a vast improvement over the traditional SUV driving dynamics.
Inside is where the Explorer Limited really shines, offering occupants an immediate sense of luxury with soft-touch materials, comfortable leather seats and a long list of comfort and convenience options.
However, like many others, I was not enamored with the touch-screen operation of the entertainment, navigation, heating and air-conditioning controls, which force drivers to take their eyes off the road.
I did love the power operation of third-row seating which allows a person to fold, stow and restore the seats to their upright position with the touch of a button.
However, the third-row seating can only be accessed by folding second-row seating forward and, even then, entry takes a bit of agility. Also, the two passengers in the rear will only be happy if they are not more than 6 feet tall.
While this may not be a problem for many owners, the second row in the test car was basically sculpted for only two passengers. The person stuck in the middle will not want to travel far. Strictly in the name of practicality, I would prefer a traditional three-passenger bench.
Although the 2013 Ford Explorer comes across as a large vehicle, the 21 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row is a bit misleading because it is more vertical than horizontal.
However, press the convenient power buttons, the third row folds flat and cargo space opens up to 43.8 cubic feet, Fold down the second-row seat backs and a full 80.7 cubic feet of space is available.
The 2013 Ford Explorer features a long list of standard safety equipment, to which the Limited adds blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, inflatable rear seat belts, and adaptive cruise control with collision warning
All in all, the 2013 Ford Explorer Limited is an impressive package --- practical, luxurious, reasonably spacious. For the growing family, it makes a whole lot more sense than its predecessors.