New Car Review: 2003 Ford Expedition

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SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

2003 Ford Expedition XLT
Base price: $39,535
Price as tested: $41,420
EPA mileage: 13 city/ 17 highway


By Des Toups
	The flabbiest of the big sport-utilities has spent some time in the gym 
for 2003, and if the new Ford Expedition isn’t exactly buff, it’s certainly 
bulked-up, tighter and wearing nicer clothes.
	As it did with the Explorer, Ford pulled out the stops for this crucial 
makeover, and for the same reason: It had to. Supremely competent redesigns 
of Chevrolet’s Suburbans and Tahoes and a new entry from Toyota, the 
Sequoia, made the original Expedition feel like the middle-age softie it 
was. The interior of that first-edition Expedition came straight from the 
industrial-grade F-150 pickup, and its handling could be kindly described 
as imprecise.
	For 2003, an independent rear suspension and its accompanying room and 
handling advantages, an attractive, carlike interior and gadgets galore put 
the big Ford on at the front of the pack among big wagons. It’s not as 
smooth as the Toyota or the Chevrolets, but it handles roads and people 
better than both.
	That new suspension allows each rear wheel to accommodate bumps 
separately, keeping tires in contact with the pavement. Steering is now 
precise rack-and-pinion, rather than the vague yet nervous recirculating 
ball system of yore. The track -- the distance between wheels -- is an inch 
wider. The frame is stiffer, the springs and bushings retuned.
  	The result is a quantum leap in handling. Compared with its predecessor, 
and with its big-ute rivals, the Expedition feels almost crisp. Tackle an 
exit ramp at 40 mph. Instead of wallowing on its suspension as the driver 
saws back and forth on the wheel, trying to guess which way the front tires 
are pointing, the new Expedition leans far less and takes a confident line. 
An optional Advance Trac system steps on the brakes if maneuvers get too 
enthusiastic.
	There’s a canyon down the road whose switchbacks, climbs and banked turns 
are a perfect handling test. One hairpin turn that was frightening at 15 
mph in an older Expedition felt downright comfortable at 25 mph in the 
2003; going faster than that provoked the Advance Trac stability control 
system, which cuts in abruptly but settles the commotion quickly. Never did 
the Expedition feel loose or sloppy, its defining traits until now. The 
brakes -- beefy discs at every corner, with electronic assist to help in 
panic stops -- faded not one whit in several passes down the canyon.
	The other big benefit of the suspension redesign is the third seat, which 
folds into the rear load floor. Other big SUVs have a solid axle that 
requires more clearance; their third seats must be removed to get them out 
of the way. There’s more room for passengers in just about every direction 
than in the Tahoe or Sequoia, too. Adults can sit in the third row of the 
Expedition like … adults, without their knees against the seatback. The 
crowning touch, at least if you believe Ford advertising, is an optional 
power-fold feature that lowers the seat at the touch of a button, while you 
and your friends watch in awe.
	Outer seats in the middle row easily fold and tumble forward to allow easy 
access to the third row. The middle part of the second seat has a neat 
touch: It slides forward to just behind the front seats, so parents 
PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
Seating Possibilities
(hopefully, not the one who’s driving) can tend a strapped-in toddler without pulling a muscle. There are rear earphone jacks with separate audio controls (meaning adults can listen to the radio while kids listen to Barney). There’s an available rear-seat video system to pacify the kids on long trips. There’s a pop-down convex mirror just above the rearview, too, that lets a driver keep an eye on the rear seat once the movie is over. Kid-friendly is the buzzword. Adults needn’t feel cheated. The new interior, at last unique to this $40,000 wagon, is well laid-out and attractive, a black surround for the instruments contrasting with lighter interior colors. It looks good and mostly feels good, too, though the quality of interior plastics remains a step below the Toyota. The most eye-catching part of the new dashboard is its four round, aluminum-finished air-conditioning vents -- but twisting them to adjust airflow betrays their cheap feel. Same disappointment with the ventilation controls, which spin freely, without the silicon-damped precision one finds in European or Japanese marques. Ford didn’t stint on the toys up front. Power-adjustable gas and brake pedals are standard, rising to meet the feet of shorter drivers. Front seats are power-adjustable for height, with seat warmers and coolers optional. Buttons on the steering wheel control the radio; a CD navigation system is optional. Headrests on the front captain’s chairs are tall and wide, blocking over-the-shoulder views, but side mirrors that are downright huge, a two-foot tighter turning circle and an optional rear-parking assist -- it beeps as you approach an obstacle -- make parking this huge beast relatively easy. Powering the upmarket editions of the Expedition is a carryover 260-horsepower 5.4-liter V-8, which churns out a stellar 330 foot-pounds of torque, the muscle that actually moves the truck. While Ford is confident enough of the engine’s abilities to rate its towing capacity at 8,650 pounds -- a ton more than the Sequoia can handle -- there's too much truck here and too little engine. The redesign added more than 500 pounds to the Expedition’s already hefty curb weight, exacerbating the problem. The smaller 4.6-liter V-8 in lesser models is probably fine for flatlanders, but anyone who tows or lives in a hilly area will want the bigger engine. Even with the 5.4-liter, a drive into the mountains is accompanied by the desperate shifting of a transmission trying to keep the engine in its power band. Drivers will find the Toyota V-8 much smoother and the GM V-8s more energetic. Fuel economy isn’t a real concern for buyers of these big SUVs, but the redesign added between 1 and 2 mpg to the Expedition’s EPA ratings, depending on the model. We averaged 16 mpg in town, admittedly with a light foot -- but that’s probably as good as any of these 2.5-ton leviathans can manage. Safety is a far bigger issue in this class, and Ford assures shoppers that the Expedition will continue its predecessor’s five-star crash ratings. A bagful of safety features unavailable on its competitors -- a side-curtain airbag for rollovers, the adjustable pedals, stability control and parking assist -- plus 5,600 pounds of mass (that’s two Honda Civics) ensures nothing if not confidence of crashworthiness. Excepting its mild shortage of grunt and a certain cheapness to some of the interior fittings, the Expedition does what big trucks are supposed to do better than its rivals. It carries up to 8 people in more comfort, with more room, in a cocoon lined with airbags (including an exclusive side-curtain airbag for rollovers). It does so while minimizing the inherent disadvantages of a vehicle this large, handling more like a car and feeling more maneuverable in town, at a price thousands less than a comparably equipped Toyota or Chevrolet.
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