Road Test: 2004 Ford Explorer Sport Trac
By: Mike Magda, Editor Posted: 06-12-04 21:50 PT
© 2004

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The 2004 Ford Explorer Sport Trac is an ongoing exercise in good news, bad news.

Good News: In the 2004 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, the Sport Trac ranked highest among all compact pickups. It came in ahead of the Ford Ranger and the Toyota Tacoma.

Bad News: The 2004 Sport Trac finished last in the government’s new safety test designed to predict the likelihood of a rollover during a sharp turn. The two-wheel-drive model was the only vehicle tested to receive two stars out of a possible five. Tests on the 4WD model were inconclusive, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will repeat the test later. The two-star rating means the rollover risk in a one-vehicle crash is 30 to 40 percent, according to NHTSA criteria. Ford says the test uses an extreme maneuver that does not necessarily reflect real-world driving and that company tests indicate the Sport Trac is safe. NHTSA says the Sport Trac went up on two wheels during the turning maneuver.

Good News: Even though it’s based on the same platform as the previous generation Explorer, the Sport Trac makes up 15-20 percent of all current Explorer sales. Last year, Ford sold just over 373,000 Explorers—down from 433,847 in 2002. That means anywhere from 56,000 to 74,000 Sport Tracs were sold in 2003. That’s more than all GMC Sonomas (35,040) or Nissan Frontiers (65,161), let alone their 4-door crew cab models that Sport Trac cross-shoppers would compare. In fact, Ford officials say more than half of Sport Trac customers are new to the Ford portfolio, so it is a valuable conquest vehicle.

Bad News: The Sport Trac is based on the old Explorer platform. While profits may be steady because the assembly line hasn’t been retooled, the Sport Trac is showing its age in both appearance and performance. And don’t forget, the old Explorer had its share of image problems following the Firestone tire fiasco. It’s time for a new Sport Trac.

Good News: Ford design chief J. Mays says a new Sport Trac is coming soon. Speaking with Automotive News at the New York Auto Show, Mays was asked about the Ford Super Duty pickups and the Sport Trac. He replied: “Yes, you’ll see those very soon. I can’t tell you exactly when. But you’ll see a very different look to them.”

The Explorer Sport Trac desperately needs a different look. It’s a shining example of how practical innovation can overcome aesthetic flaws. The Sport Trac first appeared about the same time as the Nissan Frontier Crew Cab, which had dashing style, heavy industrial image and could be ordered with a supercharged engine. The Sport Trac paid more attention to personal comfort and convenience, yet offered enough utility to meet the needs of a growing customer base that apparently either loved the looks or could tolerate the design because the truck was so useful.

The Sport Trac combines a small pickup bed with passenger features and mechanical components of the old 4-door Explorer. It originally came in just one trim for both 4x2 and 4x4 models and a few options that improved on the base, hose-it-out cloth-seat and rubber-floor interior. But the Sport Trac’s success prompted Ford to offer four trim levels. The base XLS comes with the 4.0-liter V6 engine, CD player, power windows, roof rails, 3.73:1 rear axle and 5-speed automatic transmission. XLT adds Berber floor mats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and plenty of option potential to upgrade the audio system or add accessories. XLT Premium adds the monochromatic paint scheme, fog lamps, alloy wheels, 4.10:1 rear axle, leather seating and a center console that includes rear climate/audio controls.

Our test vehicle was the top-of-the-line 4x4 Andrenalin, which came with a base price of $29,995 on the truck’s sticker, but the Ford Web site listed the base price at $31,530 in late May. When we checked, Ford also offered a $3000 cash back incentive. Options on our truck included side curtain air bags ($560), leather seating ($795), bed extender ($195) and hard tonneau cover ($590) for a total MSRP of $32,135, including $645 destination (on our truck’s Monroney). Our Andrenalin was drenched in Competition Orange paint, but Ford has since discontinued that color.

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