For The Associated Press
(AP) - Wow, the Ford Explorer sure has changed. No longer a truck-based sport utility vehicle, the Explorer rides comfortably and is generously sized, with noticeable roominess.
Inside, the 2013 Explorer can be stocked with high-tech features, including a navigation system offering the most fuel-efficient route to your destination.
For 2013, the Explorer also has more safety features than ever and earned a top, five-out-of-five stars in federal government crash testing. And, with an optional, turbocharged four-cylinder engine helping the 2013 Explorer earn a government rating of 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway, the Explorer ranks as the best large-sized SUV in highway fuel economy.
Pricing is on par with large SUVs that offer three rows of seats.
The seven-passenger, 2013 Explorer has a starting retail price of $31,995 (with destination charge) for a front-wheel drive model with 290-horsepower V-6 and automatic transmission. The 2013 Explorer with the fuel-efficient, turbocharged four cylinder costs about a thousand dollars more, and the turbo four is available only on front-wheel drive Explorers.
Competing SUVs include the 2013 Honda Pilot, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $30,350 for a front-wheel drive model with 250-horsepower V-6 and seating for up to eight. All-wheel drive 2013 Pilots start at $31,950.
Another competitor is the 2013 Dodge Durango, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $30,490 with rear-wheel drive and 290-horsepower V-6. All-wheel drive 2013 Durangos start at $32,690.
Note the Pilot is available with V-6 only, while the Durango is offered with choice of V-6 or 360-horsepower V-8.
No V-8 is offered for the Explorer any more. But a new-for-2013 Explorer Sport, with price starting at $41,675, gets the 365-horsepower, turbocharged V-6 that's in the performance Ford Taurus SHO sedan.
In 2000, the Explorer was the top-selling SUV in the United States, with annual sales of 400,000 or more. But highly publicized rollover crashes and questions about the Explorer's Firestone tires hammered sales, and competitors proliferated and benefited over the years.
Through 11 months of calendar 2012, for example, Explorer sales totaled 146,963.
Still, buyers wanting a competitively priced, roomy, domestically built SUV that's can pack in the safety and convenience features of a sedan will find much to like in the 2013 Explorer.
The Explorer now uses a more car-like platform for a nicer ride. It's the same one used in Ford's Flex crossover SUV, and it gave the test Explorer a compliant ride over road bumps and a bit of cushioned ride over sharp humps on an off-road trail.
Yes, the Explorer still is offered with a drive system for all four wheels, and the test Explorer, a Limited model that topped out at just over $47,000, included the easy-to-operate terrain management knob with settings for driving in snow, mud and sand.
But the Explorer no longer has a transfer case and locking differential for rugged off-roading.
Indeed, the test Explorer Limited seemed as luxurious as a luxury sedan- except everyone sat high up from the pavement.
People in the front two seats had good views out above most other vehicles on the roads. But the driver has no real view of what's immediately ahead of the Explorer hood, which sits high and imposing. Likewise, the rearview camera and reverse sensing system were a must, as it was impossible to see if anything low was behind the Explorer.
The rear camera is standard on the pricey Limited and Sport models but is part of a $1,500 option package on the XLT trim model and not offered from the factory on the base Explorer.
But, Ford has added or offers a host of other safety items on the Explorer, including a first-ever front-passenger knee air bag to help keep the rider from slipping under the dashboard during a frontal collision.
Curtain air bags for the first two rows of seats also are standard, as is traction control with electronic Roll Stability Control that seeks to avert rollovers.
Then there are the optional rear inflatable seat belts for the two outboard passengers in the second row. This is where children typically ride, and these new belt-mounted air bags help distribute crash forces across a larger body area to reduce the potential for injury. There are no reported injuries from use of these belts. But some child safety seat manufacturers have advised caution in using these belts with child safety seats. Parents can consult child seat manufacturers for the seat they purchase.
Among the other safety items: the startling-at-first collision warning system that flashes red lights on the driver windshield if the system senses the Explorer may rear-end a vehicle ahead. Thankfully, Ford engineers include a control to allow drivers to tailor the spacing between cars to avoid frequent red-light warnings.
The 3.5-liter, double overhead cam V-6 in the tester worked smoothly with the six-speed automatic transmission to deliver power readily and steadily, despite the heft of the 4,700-pound Explorer.
The sensation isn't instantaneous, and 0 to 60 miles an hour takes a reasonable-for-an-SUV 8 seconds.
With a majority of the miles driven on city streets or dirt paths, the test Explorer Limited averaged 18 mpg, which is under the 19-mpg combined city/highway rating from the government. With a fuel tank holding 18.6 gallons, this amounted to a range of just 334 miles. The Durango's fuel tank holds 24.6 gallons, in comparison.
Consumer Reports magazine ranks the Explorer much worse than average for reliability.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)