SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide
"Niche marketing" is the name of the game in the auto world. Manufacturers are actively seeking or even creating new market niches for their vehicles, both by the design of the vehicles themselves and by the design of the marketing campaign to promote them. Case in point: the Ford Explorer Sport Trac. At first glance, the Sport Trac appears to be another example of the crew-cab compact pickup, a new-to-the-U.S. and increasingly popular genre. But the nameplate says "Explorer," not "Ranger." It's the descendant of the Adrenalin concept vehicle from 1996, and similar in basic concept to the larger Lincoln Blackwood concept truck. New niche: the Explorer Sport Trac is the first SUV with a cargo box to reach production.
Ford is marketing the Sport Trac as a "lifestyle vehicle"- the perfect transportation for outdoors-oriented folks who need city transportation as well. They are not pickup people, but need more cargo space than is found in a typical SUV. If the reaction the Sport Trac got during my week with it is any indication, there are plenty of those people out there, from widely varying backgrounds. And, the usefulness of the concept is undeniable. Expect to see plenty of Sport Tracs, and as many imitators.
APPEARANCE: The Explorer Sport Trac is what happens when a four-door Explorer gets Explorer Sport front sheetmetal and a short cargo box grafted on to the rear. It's an interesting and interesting-looking concept that attracts attention. Because the cargo box is much shorter than a standard pickup bed, and shorter than the relatively large and readily-identifiable passenger cabin, the Sport Trac doesn't really look like a pickup. Passengers are emphasized over cargo. The Explorer Sport front clip, with its more angular styling, "power dome" hood, and large rectangular grille, gives the Sport Trac a much more aggressive look than the regular "Mom's station wagon" four-door Explorer. Stylized fender flares and lower cladding add to the contemporary SUV look.
COMFORT: The Explorer Sport Trac is a step or two above any crew-cab compact pickup in interior comfort. It's stylish, roomy, and versatile. A hexagonal motif in the speaker grilles and door trim adds interest to the interior, and is also found in the cargo bed and on the rear bumper. My test vehicle had the optional low-back bucket seats that are part of the "Cloth Comfort Group" option package. They are comfortable and provide good support, and the driver's seat is partially power-adjustable. The instrument panel is standard Ford fare, with a stylish flowing design and good placement of instruments and controls. Black-on-white instruments add a sporty touch, and the typical large Ford control buttons are easy to use. The AM/FM/CD sound system sounds good, and the climate control system quickly brings the interior to the desired temperature. The shifter is mounted on the steering column, freeing floor space. An interesting touch is the removable insulated nylon "sport bag" used for the center console box. The rear seat is roomier than that of any crew-cab compact pickup, or many extended cab regular pickups. Access is easy thanks to the full- sized doors. It's split 60/40, with folding backs and automatically- lowering cushions for secure interior cargo storage when needed. The cargo box is made of sturdy, dent-resistant SMC composite material. While it's not as roomy as a standard pickup box, it has more space than any car trunk. An available "cargo cage" bed extender helps carry bicycles and similarly-sized items, while a locking tonneau cover can turn it into a truly huge secure trunk.
SAFETY: The 2001 Ford Explorer Sport Trac has dual "Second Generation" front airbags, a front crumple zone, and side impact beams in the doors.
ROADABILITY: Compared to a regular Explorer, the Sport Trac has a 14-inch longer wheelbase, stiffer frame, and firmer suspension. All of these characteristics help to increase stability, with no real loss of comfort. On the highway, it's a comfortable cruiser with good visibility, and it is also easily maneuverable around town. It feels like the modern, upscale truck that it is, with good suspension damping on highway expansion joints and other rough surfaces. Note that, in common with all other SUVs and pickups, the Sport Trac's mass and relatively high center of gravity preclude "sports car" high-speed maneuverability.
PERFORMANCE: Ford's 4.0-liter single overhead cam V6 is the only engine choice for the Sport Trac, and, really, the only one necessary. Its 205 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque are more than adequate for the Sport-Trac's mission in life. Acceleration is good, with no problem on hills, either. Towing capacity is a healthy 5,040 lbs in 4x4 trim, or 5,260 with two-wheel drive. Standard payload capacity is 1,200 lbs, or 1,500 with the optional payload package (subtract about 40 lbs for 4x4), making the Sport Trac a very capable vehicle for trailering or hauling mountain bikes or perhaps a small ATV, personal watercraft, or snowmobile. At 50 inches, or 72 with the cargo cage, the cargo box is fine for bicycles but a little short for a motorcycle. Dual range four-wheel drive and reasonable ground clearance should help it on slippery boat ramps as well as off the road.
CONCLUSIONS: When is a pickup not a pickup? When it's a Ford Explorer Sport Trac SUV.
SPECIFICATIONS 2001 Ford Explorer Sport Trac 4x4 Base Price $ 25,270 Price As Tested $ 28,205 Engine Type single overhead cam V6 Engine Size 4.0 liters / 245 cu. in. Horsepower 205 @ 5250 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 240 @ 3750 rpm Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 125.9 in. / 205.9 in. Curb Weight 4,400 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 21.5 Fuel Capacity 20.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P235/75 R15 Firestone Wilderness AT Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent short-and-long arm with torsion bars / solid axle with two-stage leaf springs Drivetrain front engine, on-demand four-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 15 / 19 / 16 0 to 60 mph 10.0 sec Towing capacity 5,040 lbs OPTIONS AND CHARGES 3.75:1 limited-slip rear differential $ 355 Convenience group - includes: leather-covered tilt steering wheel with speed controls, automatic locking, remote keyless entry $ 750 Cloth comfort group - includes: front overhead console, 6-way power driver's seat $ 935 Cargo cage $ 195 Skid plates $ 125