Motoring: A bit of US excess

Roadtest: the Ford Explorer By James May

Hardly anyone really goes off-roading in the UK. Yet there is now a steady market for such vehicles, and a healthy enthusiasm for the American "sport utility" interpretation of the genre. Consider the success of Jeep in the UK: unashamedly American cars are selling well.

In its Explorer, Ford has a ready-made response. Conversion to right- hand drive and a bit of gentle Europeanising - mostsignificantly the switch from column to floor-mounted gear change - has been enough to modify a US best-seller for this market. And it remains obviously American: auto box only, a bit garish at the front, sitting on chromed wheels and kinda big all over.

In the States there is a V8 version; here we get a V6 heavily revised from a pushrod to overhead cam layout and delivering a healthy 206bhp. The gearbox is a five-speeder and the four-wheel drive hardware features a convincing, electronically controlled transfer box which automatically alters the torque split front-to-rear in its on-road setting. Should anyone want to venture into the mud, the off-roader can be locked to give a 50/50 split and high and low ratios. Even without a manual box and diff locks, it will tackle impressive terrain.

In its more natural road-going habitat, the Explorer is really quite impressive for a vehicle whose design requirements count against it. For an American car, the steering is refreshingly meaty, especially compared to the Jeep's - though the tall, weighty Explorer will still feel ponderous in fast bends. The engine is eager, if a bit noisy, and the auto-box shifts smoothly and intelligently, save for a reluctance to kick down from its overdrive top. This is best switched out on windy roads.

The interior is even more of a relief for anyone familiar with crunchy, oft-chromed American switch gear. It's big but toned in the best Ford tradition, and quite sober. The seats are very good indeed and rear accommodation is generous, but then it should be as this is a gigantic "car". Don't expect a limousine ride, though chunky tyres and the requirement for the suspension to cope with disused quarries and the like mean you will be gently pummelled.

In the role of a normal car the Explorer makes no more sense than any other big off-roader - which is not much, to be frank. But as a bit of American excess, it does nicely.

Specifications

Ford Explorer pounds 25,375 SOHC 4.0-litre V6, 206bhp, five-speed automatic gearbox. Top speed 106mph, 0-60mph 10.9sec, average fuel consumption 20.6mpg

Rivals

Jeep Grand Cherokee 4.0 Limited, pounds 28,995

Even more obviously American than the Ford: stealth bomber styling and a slightly un-European interior. With its smaller Cherokee sibling, the trend-setter for "sport utes" (utility vehicles) in the UK.

Mitsubishi Shogun 3.0 V6 5-door, pounds 27,059

Japan's attempt at a red-neck, and convincing at that. Chunky and glitzy on the outside, a bit clinical and Oriental within.

Land Rover Discovery 3.9 V8 S 5-door, pounds 24,475

The British stalwart. Compared with the American approach, this reveals its utilitarian roots: boxy styling and something of a hose-down interior. The engine - of distant American origin, ironically - is gutsy; the Discovery excels at real off-roading.

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