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The Ford Explorer Sportrac (2001), A new kind of SUV

SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

By Larry Weitzman

It was only a matter of time until auto manufacturers figured out that a pick up truck with four full size doors and a truncated, short bed would satisfy the needs of a large customer base who wanted comfort and the need to haul the occasional refrigerator.

Ford is not the first four-door small pickup, Nissan beat them to the punch by a few months, but Ford now offers four crew cab styles, two SuperDuties, one with a full size bed and one with a short bed (6.5 feet). In the F150 Series, Ford offers a crew cab pickup with a smaller bed called the SuperCrew. It's a super truck with a natural handling feel that makes it drive small, but with interior room that would rival a limo all in a package the size of a SuperCab with a short bed. But that's still big at about 225 inches long.

That's where the Sportrac comes in. It's called the Explorer Sportrac, but it's really built on the Ranger SuperCab shortbed chassis. The four-door Explorer is built on the Ranger regular cab chassis. The wheelbase stretches a long 125.9 inches, but the overall length is only 205.9 inches, just seven inches longer than a Taurus, with about another 18 inches of wheelbase. Width is 71.8 inches, which is 1.6 inches wider than an Explorer, probably due to the wheel blisters, but the width of the identical body Explorer Sport is listed at 70.2 inches, the same as the Explorer using a slightly different body. Go figure.

The body design is taken from new aforementioned Ford Explorer Sport. It is fresh and crisp. The front end has massive headlight assemblies with side marker light blisters that are very unique. Nice detail. The fender is accented by wheel well blisters that start as part of the front bumpers and encircle the front and rear wheel wells connected by a lower rocker panel and then continue across the back of the truck through the tailgate. Neat stuff.

The other body detail that adds to slick appearance is the way the small rear 100 percent composite bed fits into the cab body. The truck gives away nothing to other aggressive trucks in the looks department, sport or otherwise.

Offered as an option for the rear bed is a removable hard, tonneau cover that's hinged in the middle. When combined with a standard lockable tailgate, it converts the bed into a theft and weather resistant trunk. It also has a power outlet on the left rear sidewall of the bed. The bed is full-size deep at 20 inches although it is only 50 inches long. But with the optional $195 bed extender, the bed length becomes about six feet and very usable.

Under the hood is a SOHC version of the Ford 4.0L V-6 that's been with us for at least ten years in the Explorer, first with an OHV heads, and for the past few years, with a SOHC head. Power went up from 160 hp to 205-210 depending on the application. The Sportrac is rated at 205 hp at 5,250 rpm and 240 pounds of torque at 3,750 rpm. But as important as more power, is the way the engine works. Max engine speed is a lofty 6,250 rpm and its smooth right to the rev limiter, although the only way to reach it is by manually holding the tranny in gear. Otherwise shift points are about 5,700-5,800 rpm, which probably gives maximum performance.

Connected to this smooth mover is a five-speed automatic tranny. Yes, I did say five-speed. And it is one of the best trannies available in any sport ute, car or truck on the planet (Mercedes, Lexus, Lincoln, Jaguar and BMW use five speeder autos as well). Its smoothness is ethereal and it keeps the engine at a boil when asking for maximum performance. The ratio selection is perfect and it responds intuitively. I love this powertrain.

First gear is good to about 45-50 mph, with second good to about 65 mph and third good for 85 plus (that was a calculated figure). With close, evenly spaced ratios, it allows the engine to do its job when asked.

It only takes 8.68 seconds to run from 0-60 mph. Passing times from 50-70 mph are 5.21 and 8.27 respectively on the level and up a steep grade. Great times for a 4,400 pound sport ute with 205 hp. Great transmissions work wonders. If feels quick and part throttle response is excellent and torquey as the tranny always seems to select the right gear. When on a long grade or if towing your 20-foot day cruiser, there is a 5th gear lock-out button to prevent tranny hunting.

Only a part time two speed four wheel drive system is offered. Hopefully Ford's Control Trac will make its way to the Sportrac in the future. But in real off roading situations, the system, with its two speed transfer case will take you just about anywhere.

Fuel economy is rated by the EPA at 15/19 mpg city/highway. I averaged about 17 mpg during my test period with little time on the highway. In El Dorado County, expect about 16 to 17 mpg with about 19-20 mpg on the highway at legal speeds

Suspension is by short/long arm independent in the front and by a live axle with two stage variable rate leaf springs in the rear. Antiroll bars are affixed at both ends. But the Sportrac frame is 40 percent stiffer than its Explorer brother and it uses special urethane body mounts. This allows spring rates that give a better ride without compromising handling. It works as this Sportrac grooves the corners. The steering has a natural feel with just right effort requirements and perfect on and off center feel.

I don't know what's got into Ford, but in their newest generation trucks, the SuperDuty, the SuperCrew, the Expedition and others, I noticed significant steering feel improvement. It's much more connected with effort levels that let the road in without requiring the muscles of Arnold. Parking is a breeze.

On Ponderosa Road, the Sportrac quelled the washboard remarkably well with a firm but not harsh ride considering it's a truck that carries a payload of 1,500 pounds and will tow up to 5,300 pounds (factory rating). And with a long wheelbase of almost 126 inches, it will tow like most regular cab, full size pickups. Remember to respect that 5,300 pound limitation, because even with 12 inch discs up front and 11 inch drums in the rear, you need to be able to stop as well as accelerate. With the Sportrac at a maximum GVW of 5,880 pounds and a trailer of 5,300 pounds, those brakes need to stop more than 11,000 pounds if there was a trailer brake failure.

In the two 90 degree corners, the Sportrac did get some rear axle movement in the bumps, but was perfectly controllable and reasonably composed. But Green Valley, Bass Lake and Cold Springs Roads were a pleasure. With sport car like handling and big meaty standard 235/75X15 inch tires, the Sportrac was apex to apex at maximum legal speeds. It is fun to drive. There was some understeer, but it felt more balanced than a pickup, in fact its handling and ride was more comparable to a sport sedan.

On the highway, the ride was very smooth with minimal intrusion from expansion joints, with a well controlled ride that is on the firm side. But on asphalt pavement, it is glass smooth and reasonably quiet, with little wind or engine noise. It spins at a relaxed 2,400 rpm at 70 mph.

The front disc brakes come with standard ABS. The stopping power is excellent. From 40 mph, it can be hauled down to a stop in less than 45 feet in a perfectly straight line. In several panic stops, there was no perceptible fade.

On the inside, you will be rewarded with what are maybe the best seats in any Ford Truck. I know, I've said that before about other Ford products like the SuperDuty and the SuperCrew, but these seats are about the cushiest I've ever encountered. My wife had the same sentiments. These are sublime seats. My vehicle was done in a durable cloth that looked like it had a projected life span that would be measured by decades.

The dash is right out of an Explorer, with a binnacle containing white faced fully instrumented gauges featuring a big speedo and tach flanked by a temp and fuel gauge left and voltmeter and oil pressure gauges to the right.

The center pod holds the superb radio and AC systems, with a console that has three cupholders in front and two in the rear. But most unique is what's below the armrest. There is a removable padded storage container for CD's and other items. It is made of cordura nylon and comes with a shoulder strap or can be carried by a hand strap. This is clever.

Rear seaters are treated to the same comfortable seats as the front guests. They fold flat in a one third/two third fashion for extra interior capacity.

Designed for real sport, the Sportrac comes without carpeting. Instead, durable and well-padded floor mats are used that can be hosed out if need be. To dress up the interior, Ford supplies removable embroidered Berber carpet mats. It looks great and still feels rich with utility as the bonus.

Finally, Ford installed a standard power back window which can be opened about an inch for ventilation by a push of a dash button or with a twist it can be lowered all the way. More trick stuff.

Prices start at $25,270 plus $575 for the shipping. Standard equipment includes power windows, am/fm stereo CD, full ABS, power mirrors, three power outlets and the list goes on.

My test vehicle had two packages plus what I consider the mandatory limited slip rear axle. The comfort group with lists for $935 includes an overhead console with outside temp and compass plus a six-way driver's seat. The convenience group ($750) includes auto locking hubs, keyless remote, cruise and a leather wrapped steering wheel. My vehicle also had the flip over cargo cage (bed extender), $195 and a bargain and skid plates for $125 which amounts to cheap running gear insurance.

Total price was $28,205. I would recommend all the equipment this versatile SUV had.

Harrell Motors has a large selection of this super utility vehicle. It's as comfortable as any five passenger sedan and can carry your refrigerator. With the bed outlet, just bring along an inverter and plug in (actually, check the wattage requirement as the maximum alternator output is 130 amps or a theoretical 1560 watts of power).


 (4X4)                     $25,270 to about $29,000
 (4x2)                     $22,595 to about $26,500

SOHC 4.0L 12 valve V-6     205 hp @ 5,250 rpm
                           240 lb-ft of torque @ 3,750 rpm
Maximum engine speed       6,250 rpm

five speed electronically 
controlled automatic   

Transfer Case
two speed part time 

front, longitudinal engine
rear wheel drive, four wheel drive

Wheelbase               125.9  inches
Length                  205.9  inches
Width                   71.8   inches
Height                  70.1   inches
Weight                  4,400  pounds
Track (f/r)             58.5/58.5  inches
Turning Circle          43.1   foot
Fuel Capacity           20.5   gallons
Bed Length              50     inches
Bed Depth               19.7   inches
Bed Capacity            29.6   cubic feet (non extended)
GVWR                    5,880  pounds

0-60                  8.68   seconds 
50-70                 5.21   seconds
50-70 uphill          8.27   seconds            
Top Speed             Faster than I want to go
Fuel Economy          EPA 15/19 mpg city/highway. Expect
                        17 mpg in El Dorado County and 19-20
                        mpg on the highway at legal speeds.