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2003 Midsize SUV Buyer's Guide
by Steve Siler

Ford Explorer/ Mercury Mountaineer
Mercury Mountaineer

Cars were around before Henry Ford started the now 100-year-old Ford Motor Company. But it was Ford that popularized the car with the 1907 (and beyond) Model T. Long about 1990, history repeated itself with another Ford, the Explorer: even though mid-size SUVs were around before then, it was the Explorer that popularized it, making "SUV" a household term.

Now nearly 14 years later, the Explorer, along with its classy Mercury counterpart, continues to offer families one of the best overall SUV packages on the market. Offering just enough size to keep families close enough to each other to feel close - but not so close that Billy and Susie can't have their own space) - the Explorer/Mountaineer duo makes family transportation a comfortable, no-compromises affair. And if Billy and Susie start bickering, banish one of them to the third-row seat, which comes standard on the Mountaineer, and is optional on the Explorer. Also, from either row, they can watch Barney make merry on the optional flip-down DVD entertainment system.

The standard engine on either of these trucks is a 210-hp V-6, while a 240-hp V-8 is optional. Both come mated to a silky 5-speed automatic transmission with a top gear that is sufficiently tall so as to eek the best possible fuel economy from the engines (although neither can be characterized as fuel-sippers). Rear-wheel drive is standard, while a sophisticated automatic all-wheel-drive system is optional. Ride quality is terrific, thanks to a fully independent suspension. A stability control system is a new option this year, as is a rollover protection system that incorporates curtain air bags and a network of sensors to deploy them in the event of an impending rollover.

Base prices start just north of $26,000 in the mid-twenties and rise to near $40K for a 4WD Limited or Eddie Bauer edition with options. Not too cheap, but lots of truck for the money. It's a nice combination of equipment, comfort and space that we can recommend without reservation.