Sat04192014

On The Road

The workhorse & thoroughbred of SUVs: Upscale versions of Ford Explorer and Range Rover get

People who know we write car reviews for the Town Crier sometimes ask what vehicle we own. Our answer for the past seven years has been the same: the Ford Explorer, and we just leased our third one a few months ago.

We need a sport-utility because Genie is an avid gardener, which means frequent trips to the nursery, and Gary races a vintage MGA that has to be towed to tracks in Northern California. Having test-driven most SUVs on the market, we came to the conclusion, as have a large number of other consumers over the years, that the Explorer offered the best combination of price, performance and quality in the mid-price market.

However, if price were no object and our needs were the same, we might pick what we consider the best of the best SUVs, the Range Rover Supercharged by Land Rover, which we recently tested and drove for a week. Both of these mounts come from the Ford stable, and they are both considered the best in their field.

We put both through their off-road paces a few weeks ago at the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, one of the state of California's designated off-road driving areas.

On the off-road course, we found that the Explorer ranked easily among the most competent in its class, able to handle the most challenging of obstacles with just a little coaching for the driver.

The Range Rover, however, was in a class almost by itself, with only the top-of-the-line Hummer able to match its ability to negotiate the toughest of obstacles. It was only necessary to raise the ride height on the variable suspension to its maximum to get ground clearance of 10.8 inches, dial the six-setting road-surface adjustment to "sand and gravel" and we were ready to climb Mt. Everest.

Awesome ascents, breathtaking descents, steep side-angle traverses and deep ruts and crevasses were just bumps in the road to the Range Rover.

Back on the highway, both vehicles prove their dual-purpose capability. Except for their height, they feel just like any sedan in their class, quiet and smooth, with excellent sound systems and interior amenities that make them comfortable on long trips. The only difference is that the Explorer matches, say, a midrange Lexus or BMW, while we had to think high-end Jaguar or even Bentley to find a counterpart to the silk-and-velvet feeling of the Range Rover.

The Explorer benefits from significant engineering changes in suspension, steering and brakes for 2006, which improve an already smooth ride and responsive handling without reducing off-road capabilities. In addition, the V8 engine now offers class-leading power.

The Range Rover was redesigned in 2003, with small improvements in each subsequent year, including the addition of the supercharged V8 engine, which produces significant horsepower to more than cope with its heavy body.

In most respects, these two vehicles are comparable in all but price. They're both about the same midsize SUV length and provide comfortable interior seating space, more-than-satisfactory cargo capacity and similar maneuverability.

Both have body-on-frame structures, the traditional way of building SUVs that provides strength and rigidity. It also enables the engineers to isolate occupants from highway noise.

The 300 pound-feet of torque produced by the Explorer's engine and the impressive 420 pound-feet of torque from the supercharged Range Rover give them top-of-the-line towing capability.

The bottom line is that these are true utility vehicles and can get the job done, whatever the owner requires.

Our Explorer easily can swallow my pop-up shelters, tools, spare parts and racing paraphernalia and still tow a loaded car trailer to Thunderhill Race Track without breathing hard. The Range Rover could equally easily haul weekend horseshow gear and a loaded horsebox to a Santa Barbara horse event or tow a boat and ski gear up to Tahoe.

Much of this competence comes from the Ford family, which is finally proving to have strong synergistic benefits.

Both the Explorer and Range Rover benefit from Jaguar engine technology. The Explorer's new "Roll Stability Control" - denoted by a red "RSC" on the rear panel - comes from the Land Rover and Volvo engineering staffs. Equally important, the manufacturing economies that keep all these vehicles competitive in their price ranges come from the Ford manufacturing staff.

The appearance of these two vehicles bespeaks the same workaday competence as the engines and suspensions. The designers weren't going for Tonka Toy macho or space-age swoopy, so there aren't any unnecessary curves on the side panels or fender flares with fake rivets.

On the Explorer, we particularly like the monochromatic effect of the Limited package, with body-color moldings, cladding and running boards. The 18-inch chrome wheels are the only slightly trendy touch to the styling.

The Range Rover, with its distinctive high greenhouse for easy driving visibility and squared-off hood and rear, is an easily recognizable icon. But unlike some other "statement" vehicles in this class, the look is one of understated competence. "The Range Rover looks like a middleweight prize fighter next to a costumed TV wrestler," said one reviewer.

Even the 20-inch polished alloy wheels seem to meld smoothly into the look, though the vehicle's ability to drop to an 8-inch ride height for in-town driving certainly helps keep it from looking ungainly. The easy-access height is also a boon to loading, whether the load is a saddle, bale of hay or four sets of golf clubs.

Overall, we think these two Ford family steeds deserve the respect they've earned in their consumer markets. They may be very different in price, but both offer full value for the money in terms of getting the job done.

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