BEST PEOPLE MOVER
2002 FORD EXPLORER
I ZEROED IN on an angling hideout where the map's thick red highway line gave way to a dotted, dirt road in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The "road" crossed a stream at an elevation cool enough to hold the promise of native cutthroats, and far out enough that the fishing hole had been closed to me thanks to my compact car. But not this day. No, today I hold my head highÂ—three feet higher, to be exactÂ—in a blue Explorer. Slapping down the standard third-row seat, I've jammed everything I need (fly rod and reel, pack, two-burner stove), plus a heap of stuff I could do without (deluxe camp chairs, expedition-size cooler, six-person tent), in the back. Way back: There's room left for another five passengers on what's an intentionally solitary excursion.
It's obvious this rig was made for pounding out miles of concrete; it's less an off-road vehicle than a road-trip machine with off-road capabilities. To wit: The engine runs quieter than my four-binger; leather bucket seats contort in six directions for custom comfort; auxiliary steering-wheel buttons activate cruise control, air conditioner, and the 290-watt six-CD stereo.
Riding in this style, my trip is anticlimacticÂ—I'm seven miles off pavement before the four-wheel drive comes into play in front of a teeth-chattering hairpin switchback. I zip around easily, but Ford's new independent rear suspension doesn't exactly smooth out the remaining bumps and ruts; it's more like riding a Zodiac in whitecaps. Still, no need to break out the Dramamine just yet. I annihilate the washed-out talus traverses, 40-degree grades, and bathtub-size ruts and get to the stream without losing my breakfastÂ—or my lunch, stowed in the cooler. Alas, the truck doesn't help me catch any fishÂ—a bummer until you consider the miles of contentment between the woods and home. Â—Chris Keyes
210-horsepower V-6 engine; full- and part-time four-wheel drive; 81 cubic feet cargo space; 7 passengers; 15 mpg city, 20 mpg highway; $36,375 (as tested); www.fordvehicles.com
BEST PEOPLE MOVER