1997 Ford Expedition

"Wow! Is it ever big!"

"That's not an Explorer is it?"

"What'd they do, blow it up on a photocopier?"

"So this is Ford's Suburban-beater. Finally!"

"It's got to be bigger than GM's Tahoe/Yukon."

"How much does it cost?"

And so on, all through my week of testing, the same comments and questions.

Fortunately for Ford, when the vox populi wasn't comparing the new Expedition to General Motor's truckwagons, commenting on its Explorer-ness or expressing astonishment at its size, the remarks were keenly favorable.

Most folks said they'd like to own one.

How much?

Our leatherlined, 5.4 litre, V8equipped Eddie Bauer model with a thirdrow seat ($1,326), air conditioning ($626), plus off-road skid plates ($211) and a limited slip-differential ($384) maxed out at $48,362. (That includes a $920 destination and delivery charge, but not GST or PST.)

Majestic, yes. But consider that an Eddie Bauer Explorer would set you back almost $44,000.

Further, consider that at 3,198 and 2,495 kilograms respectively, the Explorer costs about $17.60 per kilo.

The Expedition is a relative bargain at $15.12.

According to a Ford spokesperson, the least expensive two-wheel drive Expedition XLT with a 4.6 litre V8 will list at $35,095, plus freight and taxes.

How big? Compared to the Explorer, I'll agree that the Expedition is huge. However, more relevant comparisons are to the Expedition's direct competition, the Suburban and Tahoe/Yukon.

For all of you who asked, here goes.

In wheelbase (302 cm, to the nearest centimetre) and overall length (520 cm), the Ford sits between the GM offerings. The Sub is 559 cm long on a 334 cm base and the Tahoe/Yukon is 506 on 299.

The Ford is chubbier (79 cm versus 77 cm wide) and, at 194 cm in height, the 4×4 Expedition tops the Tahoe/Yukon four-wheel drive by 3 cm.

So, big. But not soo big.

The styling on the GM truckwagons has been carefully marshalled to provide a sleek, taut economy of line and spaces as much of a sense of compactness as is possible on such a large scale.

But the Expedition's bold lines and curvaceous styling cues have been chosen to enhance its massiveness.

Some of that comes directly from the Explorer. The guy who made the crack about the photocopier had it about right. However, the new F150 pickup has made a contribution, especially around the front fenders and bumper, and the Expedition also brings with it some new touches like the sculpting in the grille.

Moreover, it works. For all its bulk, this is one handsome dude of a truck.

Size, however, can present drawbacks as well as benefits. Ford has chosen to provide its four-wheel drive Expedition with gobs of ground clearance. To what end, I don't know, cause you'd never take any thing this big on that kind of trail.

Plus, there is no mechanical necessity imposed by the suspension, not even the clearance needs of the tall P265/70R17 Wrangler RT/S tires.

The high stance results in a front seat climb-in height of 61 cm; 66 cm for the little ones scrambling into the back seat. Or the big ones for that matter. From the ground to the front seat base measures over 88 cm.

The wide running boards help, as do the wellplaced grab handles. But that's a long — I mean long — way up. The roof rack is in the stratosphere.

To hoist cargo from the pavement to the rear floor takes a lift of some 91 cm. A bit much for my back, thanks. But the heave is worth it. The top-hinged, full hatch with liftglass door opens to expose a vast load space (123 cm wide and 216 cm long) with the third seat out and the second seat folded; roughly 0.4 square metres with the second seat in use.

It's obvious that the rear seating is the result of considerable thought. The second-row bench is split 60/40 with the right or 40 per cent side designed to stand (sit?) alone as a single bucket.

In turn, this single chair is equipped to tilt forward allowing access to the rear bench. Or it will fold over into the foot well, creating an almost flat load floor.

Nothing really new there. But close inspection reveals that the seat mounts and mechanicals have been carefully designed for light weight and ease of operation.

The novel third bench really benefits from the careful design. Not only is it a reasonable place to sit (only smaller folks need apply), but the seat pops in and out with astonishing ease.

And it is the industry's only truly manageable, one person, non-herniating, removable rear bench at only 31 kg.

A Wheels' Gold Star for the rear seats in general and an Oak Leaf cluster for the bench.

The front seats don't quite make it into the award category. They look great and the leather is supple and natural. However, although the seat bases are large, cushy and supportive, the backs are too hard. Crank in some of the adjustable lumbar bulge and they get even harder.

Anyone used to the current Explorer will be right at home behind the nearly identical Expedition dash. It's bigger, of course, but the only significant changes to the admirable Explorer layout are the repositioning of the all wheel drive system selector switch closer to the driver and the return of the rear wiper control to the turn signal stalk.

Two airbags supplement seatbelt systems that provide adjustable-height shoulderbelt mounts for the front seats and the outside second row.

Anyone used to the current Explorer will be envious of the Expedition's centre console.

Larger, of course, it features map pockets on each flank, two cupholders (plus two in a dash popout) and a nice flatbottomed tray where the Explorer Limited places a computer read-out display.

The Expedition moves the read-out up to a less intrusive overhead position along with controls for the rear heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and power swing-out rear vent windows.

In the process, the display's outside temperature function was deleted. Bad call.

Further on the endlessly fascinating subject of cupholders, there are two drink receptacles in the farthest back area shaped to accept juice boxes and two more in a foldout centre armrest for the second-row passengers.

Row two is also provided with headphone jacks and remote sound system controls.

Out on the road, the elephantine Expedition delivers surprising performance. Although the ride is a mite soft for my tastes, the shocks and springs are perfectly matched.

Nevertheless, the lack of crispness gives the Expedition a ponderous feel it doesn't deserve. But stout stabilizers provide good roll control.

When conditions demand, the big machine proves to be quite light on its feet — the result of an F150 heritage that provides a talented independent front suspension and quick, accurate steering.

Where the Expedition really comes into its own is on the open highway, coping with curvy two-lane or high-speed freeway with equal confidence. And quiet!

The interior is Lincoln-like at lock-you-up speeds.

I did try some mild off-roading, which confirmed that the springs and shocks sing in fine harmony, but it didn't give the ControlTrac 4WD Auto system much of a challenge. We'll need snow for that.

Our tester was equipped with Ford's 5.4 litre V8; the 4.6 litre V8 is standard equipment. Rated at 230 horsepower and 325 poundfeet of torque, the new engine is turbine smooth and sharply responsive.

I had the opportunity to haul a 5.7 metre boat and the motor hardly knew it was there. The Expedition is rated to tow 8,000 pounds (3,630 kg).

Transport Canada reports fuel use of 18.2 litres per 100 km on city loop, 12.5 for the highway.

That's at posted speeds. At unposted speeds between Waterloo and Huntsville I used up 17.4 litres per hundred.

For all who asked, I can't tell you if the 5.4 is the equal or the better of GM's Vortec 5700. Our Expedition was saddled with an automatic transmission that clicked off blissfully smooth and well-timed shifts under part-throttle acceleration, but went all dithery when the pedal was floored.

It often gave a long pause before a downshift and then hung up between gears on the upshifts.

As a result, zero-to-100 km/h acceleration times hovered just over 12 seconds, and I think 11 and change is more like it.

The 90-to-120 passing test results were extremely variable, from a very respectable 8.3 seconds to almost 10.

The Expedition is a splendid beast, a worthy opponent for the big GMs.

I unearthed plenty of room for improvement, but this vehicle will be around for many years.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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