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A Rugged Redesign
The 2003 Ford Expedition

By Martha Hindes

It's big, it's bold and some say it's brash. And that's without driving it.

Whatever the "B" word, one thing is certain. Ford's next generation, full-size Expedition won't get lost in the crowd. Ford had a chance to make some serious points when it was time for a total revamp of its four-door sport utility king and, if first impressions count for anything, it appears they succeeded.

The new Expedition to be launched in late Spring as a 2003 model hasn't been tamed that much. Its heart is solid off-roader -- rugged, tough, with practical and good looking cladding and slightly-raised hoodline. It's designed for the kind of presence that could intimidate a lesser sport utility pretender out of the passing lane. (Anyone who's ever had a semi-truck crowding the rearview mirror should appreciate that aspect.)

But underneath such shoulder-bumping ruggedness is an extremely practical and genuinely refined vehicle with touches of pure luxury thrown in for good measure. This time someone up in Ford's stellar design studio was paying attention to what drivers really want to make life a lot easier and more comfortable.

Take the third row of seats, for example. Check out the competition in the full-size SUV class, and there's a real problem if you plan to pack in a few sets of skis or a ton of luggage for an extended cross-country drive, far from the hassle of an hours-long airport check-in line. It's no fun trying to flop excess baggage over the rear row seatbacks or stack it until it blocks the rear window.

During test drives in most full-size SUVs in the past, I've simply bypassed the idea of wrestling those seats out of their sockets to store wherever until I needed them again. Somehow the idea of hoisting a bulky carseat weighing what feels like a couple of hundred pounds (and not wanting to stash it inside my office for safekeeping in the process) simply didn't seem worth the effort. You can run out of willing coworkers and friends in a hurry when you ask them for that kind of help.

But (sigh of relief), not so with the new Expedition. Instead of removable seats, the Expedition's third row simply folds down with the touch of a button just inside the rear liftgate, leaving a flat, level floor in its place.

2003 Ford Expedition Cargo SpaceSales kits, computers, luggage, the spoils of a successful antiquing foray or even a mountain bike all promise to slide in easily as soon as the second and third row seats fold down flat, opening up 110.4 cubic feet max of cargo space. And you don't need a garage for leftover seats when it's time for some serious traveling. For a night out with several friends, the two power-fold buttons raise up the split back third row in a moment. The electronic gizmo is optional and is only available on the upscale Eddie Bauer model. But what the heck, it can't be that difficult to raise and lower those fold-flat rear seats by hand, can it?

Roominess and Safety Features

The inside of this SUV is spacious enough to carry nine, if the first and second row captain's chairs are bypassed for benches. But it seems roomy no matter where you sit. I watched a six-foot-tall male do a third-row stretch with no awkward pretzel legs nearly touching his chin and without bumping his head on the roof. Shorter drivers shouldn't have distance complaints either when trying to reach controls. Thanks to the standard, power-adjustable pedals there's no more nose to the steering wheel for the less-than-stately.

Should the unthinkable rollover accident occur, Ford has developed an aggressive Safety Canopy system. In addition to steel safety beams inside the doors, there's an optional side curtain airbag the full length of each side. It stays inflated for as long as six seconds, enough for a vehicle to complete repeated tumbling revolutions (if an accident is that severe).

Another safety option I strongly recommend: Tire pressure monitors to check inflation on the larger, 17-inch Continental tires to prevent blowouts or worse. I'm not the only one who has been lax about checking for proper tire pressure every month -- a critically important accident prevention measure.

Ford has tweaked two V-8 engines for its new contender, a Triton-based 4.6-liter aluminum block and its mainstream 5.4-liter Triton with cast iron engine block (applications chosen for their strength and ability to mute out annoying noise). The 5.4-liter pumps out 260 horsepower at 4,500 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque for more off-road or towing "oomph."

All those complaints that circulated about such a high profile vehicle's brutish advantage in a collision could be but a bad memory for the new Expedition. Bumper beams fixed at passenger car level are hidden under bumper fascia covers that visually wrap into the cladding line and replace the high-set chrome behemoths of the past. That's safety in a nattier package.

Bragging Rights

2003 Ford ExpeditionThis was a total redesign for Ford with virtually nothing left over from the previous generation Expedition except some hardware in the front seat doors. Nothing, say its engineers, was left to chance. It's easy to tell the importance of the new Expedition to the company by the amount of pre-inaugural press material it distributed. While trumpeting it as "The best in snow, the best in dirt," and of course the best on the road, it gave minute detail about every aspect of the redesign: Structural foam used to quiet the cabin and stiffen the chassis for strength. The added safety of its ControlTrac four-wheel-drive. A 20 percent shorter stopping distance during emergency braking. An optional AdvanceTrac anti-slip stability system to prevent sliding on slick road curves. Plus more.

Ford touts the Expedition"s "more athletic image." But if it indeed has been to the fitness center, then you might say the interior has been to a spa. There's no hint of its earlier pickup truck heritage inside. The subtle two-tone interior (sand in the prototype) is lighter on top for a calming sense of spaciousness, and a few tones darker at wear areas to hide the inevitable usage. Gone are glaring chrome accents. Instead, there are touches of muted satin-finished steel, elegantly understated without being bland. A softened Nebo leather is standard on the upscale Eddie Bauer version and optional on the XLT.

2003 Ford Expedition UpgradesAmong some tonier upgrades are a video navigation system and a sonar/radar backup guide to search out objects behind the vehicle for a range of 20 feet. The large center console can swallow up a laptop computer. And the DVD entertainment screen uses an infrared remote, so even those in the third row can punch in a choice without punching out a sibling to do it.

Ford added a gentle touch for women with small children or grandchildren. The available second-row bench seat has a 40-20-40 split. The small middle seat moves forward 11 inches to bring an infant or toddler within monitoring reach without needing to turn around to look.Pricing isn't yet available for the new Expedition. But with last year's 4X4 model starting in the $35,000 price range, and overall vehicle prices holding or lowered with near-record rebates and incentives, it's doubtful it will provide much sticker shock in comparison.The prototype that previewed in January, well before the availability of test vehicles to drive, left little doubt the Expedition should be a winner in its category when it actually gets out on the road. For now, based on appearances alone and assuming it lives up to its pre-launch billing, it could be a pretty tough act to follow.

To "Boldly Go" -- Just about Anywhere

A funny thing happened on the way to Vancouver. I fell in love with a great big, full-size, own-the-road sport utility vehicle. I approached the venture knowing what Ford's totally redesigned 2003 Expedition was supposed to be about. But now, as I guided it along a twisting mountain road that snaked close to sheer mountain walls and skirted thousand foot dropoffs, I realized it wasn't hype, it was real.

Critics complain the best of full-size SUVs are still a lumbering lot, meant for workhorse towing or to stroke needy egos, but with little other purpose for most who drive them. I beg to differ. Granted, the Expedition isn't exactly petite -- a necessity if you're carrying loads of people or stuff -- but behind the wheel its size is soon forgotten.

Ford gave me a primed-with-confidence chance to find out just what Expedition is all about, with a trek through Canada's Coastal Mountains in British Columbia that ended at the edge of the Pacific. The two days of driving encompassed slick wet roads, snowy trenches, iced gravel, a sea of mud navigated without getting stuck and some of the most challenging two lane highways ever carved out of solid granite.

You'd expect to feel tentative on a road where the longest straightaway between hairpin curves is a few hundred yards at best. But within minutes of taking the wheel, it feels like you're driving a car. As miles melt away, so does any question about the Expedition's capabilities. Instead, you learn to trust the vehicle and enjoy the breathtaking view.

My drive was meant to push limits, aggressively adding speed and testing cornering as the Expedition loped along. Even lead-footed driving left no sense of sway, no hint of fishtailing, no fight to keep steering under control. Response from the 5.4 liter Triton V-8 engine was instant during a tight passing maneuver. The feeling was solid as it took curve after curve with ease and comfort -- and with a surprisingly small appetite for fuel.

Ford had hinted its new generation Expedition with unique fold flat rear seating wouldn't break the budget. Base prices remain about the same as 2002 models -- ranging from $31,295 for the XLT's value model to $41,935 for the premium Eddie Bauer series plus $740 destination and delivery when it actually goes on sale this summer. It's clear the company has kept its word.

Would I want to drive the Expedition again? You bet. Just hand me the keys and hope you can pry them loose when I'm done.

--Martha Hindes