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Max Knudson: Sport Trac’s long on versatility

New Explorer with bed invites thumbs up

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Pull up to any intersection in Utah, and the odds are good that you'll see a Ford Explorer. The dictionary defines "ubiquitous" as "being everywhere at the same time" and "constantly encountered," which are apt descriptions of FoMoCo's smallest (though not small) SUV.

Which made it all the more remarkable that the Explorer Sport Trac I've been driving this week received the most attention of any vehicle I've tested since last year's Hummer.

Nor was it the "What the heck is that?!" brand of scornful interest generated by the Chevy Xtreme low-rider truck of a few weeks ago. More than once, the Sport Trac moved people to respond with a thumbs-up salute.

The thing that sets the Sport Trac apart from all the millions of other Explorers across the country (buyers snap up nearly a half-million annually) is the small pickup bed that adorns its rear end.

Does that bed mean the Explorer Sport Trac is really a truck? Ford doesn't think so. Jim O'Connor, Ford Division president, says it's just as much a sport-utility as the "regular" four-door Explorer.

"It's all about versatility and innovation . . . it's a sport-utility vehicle for people who live the SUV lifestyle," says O'Connor.

And what, precisely, is the SUV lifestyle? Well, you know. You probably live it yourself. It's about sitting up high in a vehicle that rides (somewhat) like a car but has more versatility and capacity to haul both people and cargo, and it usually has 4wd for winter driving and the occasional off-road jaunt.

But a lot of people have had difficulty deciding whether they want the pickup lifestyle or the SUV lifestyle; thus, we've been getting trucks with four doors and full-bench back seats, and now we're getting SUVs with truck beds.

It's an interesting phenomenon, this niche vehicle thing. Not long ago, the world's major automakers would only build vehicles for the mass market. Now, they're willing to plumb the nooks and crannies. I credit Chrysler Corp., which showed with its Plymouth Prowler, Dodge Viper and now the Chrysler PT Cruiser that off-beat, low-volume cars can not only be profitable but boost a company's image and sales of its high-volume marques.

Most hybrid vehicles get their start at car shows where a "concept" vehicle is put on a stand and the company then waits to see what people think of the idea. The concept Sport Trac (the 1996 Adrenalin) got so much positive feedback that Ford pulled it off the show circuit in hopes that its competitors wouldn't notice the "buzz" while they got busy building the real thing, introduced this spring as a 2001 model.

Apparently that ploy didn't work because others are creating their own SUV/truck crossover vehicles, but Ford got there first. Dealers should have them in stock by now, but my tester is the only one I've seen on the road so far.

Despite its heritage, the Sport Trac doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to the standard Explorer. Most people, even those who own Explorers, had to get close enough to see the logo and nameplate before they could identify it.

On the inside, though, it's pretty much standard Explorer, and while the back seat looks smaller and more cramped than a regular Explorer it must be an optical illusion because the dimensions are said to be the same. Ford designed special low-back buckets for the front to try to keep the back-seat passengers from feeling isolated.

Though built on an Explorer frame, to accommodate the pickup bed Ford stretched the wheelbase by 15 inches to 125.9, more than a half-foot longer than its big brother, the Ford Expedition. It's also pretty heavy, weighing in at more than two tons with four-wheel-drive and an automatic transmission, the setup most buyers will want. This produces gas mileage of 15 mpg in city driving and 19 on the highway.

Now to the part that separates Sport Trac from all the Explorers that have gone before: the pickup bed.

This is no ordinary truck bed. My first impression was that, at 4 feet 3 inches long, it was too small to do much hauling, but that changed a bit when I figured out how the (optional at $195) tubular, stainless-steel "cargo cage" worked. Left as it is, the wrap-around cargo bars provide a nice nest for holding a week's worth of groceries — keeps them from sliding around, much like those nets you see in the cargo area of most SUVs.

But with the tailgate (borrowed from Ford's F-150 pickup) lowered, this device can be pivoted backward 180 degrees to extend the bed to 6 feet. It won't keep loose material, like sand and gravel, from sliding out the back, but it works well for bulky items. Ford says the cage allows eight sheets of 4X8 plywood to be hauled in the bed by resting them on the top of the cargo bars.

Also optional for $490 is a solid, composite-material lockable bed cover (hinged in the middle) that eliminates the problem of having your cargo exposed to the weather and thieves. Hauling around valuable gear? Keep the cover on the back. Hauling around top soil or trees? Take it off (and also remove the cargo cage).

I'd say both the cargo cage and bed cover are must-have options for Sport Trac buyers. Even though you can use the back seat as a (lockable) cargo area by lowering the seat backs (revealing a couple of hidden storage bins), you'll want the ability to both extend and cover the bed.

Like the cover, the bed itself is made of a plastic material that resists denting and won't rust, plus it has a large array of big, solid tiedown brackets for securing your motorcycle, surfboard or whatever you haul. And if that isn't enough, the Sport Trac also comes with roof rails that accommodate a variety of racks for carrying bikes, kayaks, skis or whatever.

Will all this versatility actually be used? Hard to say. My wife's Honda CRV has a built-in picnic table under the rear cargo area, but it has never been used. This kind of stuff is great for car salesmen to show off, but my experience is that it has little use in real life. In the real world, we tend to drive to work, school, the grocery store and the mall. When was the last time you went kayaking?

Still, the ability to haul stuff you'd just as soon not put in the trunk of a car (loose fertilizer comes to mind) is definitely a plus, even if you only need it once in awhile, and that's what the Sport Trac is all about. On the odd occasions you need versatility, it's ready to oblige. Sport Trac can haul loads up to 1,500 pounds or tow a 5,000-pound trailer.

Other interesting touches: For added ventilation, you can lower the rear window by pushing a button on the dash, there's a 12-volt power outlet at the rear of the bed, and below that is a bottle opener.

Motivating the Sport Trac is Ford's 4.0-liter, dual-overhead cam V6, a 205-horsepower motor with 240 foot-pounds of torque that is the best powerplant currently available for Explorers. Right now you can only get the five-speed automatic transmission, but a five-speed manual is said to be in the works for later in the year.

Pricing starts at $23,050 for the 2wd rear-drive version, moves up to $25,820 for 4wd, and the cargo box options put the price at $26,485, well below the Eddie Bauer version of the standard Explorer.

E-mail: max@desnews.com">max@desnews.com