2008 Ford Explorer Sport Trac: If Its Niche is Your Niche, You’ll Love It
A few short years ago, one of the big automotive buzzwords was the term “segment busters”. This was in the day where the unibody car-based SUV was a radical new concept and manufacturers started realizing that the latest generation of consumers wanted products – both automotive and non-automotive – to speak specifically to their own unique needs. Rather than adapt habits and lifestyles to suit the vehicle, consumers increasingly expected the exact opposite.
The first generation Explorer Sport Trac was introduced for the 2001 model year and was very much a segment buster in its day. It combined SUV and pickup sensibilities in a fun package. Instead of offering a crew cab variant of the Ranger compact pickup (on which the first couple of generations of Explorer were based on), Ford decided that they could make more money by putting an Explorer-based cab and a short bed on an extended-cab Ranger frame and making it a part of the more profitable Explorer family. Thus was born the Explorer Sport Trac.
It was actually a good and sound plan; the first generation Sport Trac sold well and at far higher transaction prices than what a hypothetical Ranger Crew Cab could have ever fetched. It looked cool and had a lot of innovative utility built in such as a bed extender, composite bed inners that negated the need for a bedliner, and a hose-out rubber floor.
The first Sport Trac soldiered on for six model years until it was revamped onto the current Explorer’s platform for the 2007 model year. Though the current body-on-frame Explorer’s popularity has tailed off considerably since its heyday (most suburbanites have found that car-based crossovers suit their needs much better – and get far better fuel economy), it does provide the makings for a very unique and capable mid-sized lifestyle pickup offering.
In terms of intended usage, the latest Sport Trac is perhaps most similar to the Honda Ridgeline in that it is aimed at active lifestyle types and aims to provide unique functionality that isn’t normally found in everyday pickups. As such, both are four-door crew cab pickups, each loaded with the latest gadgets and conveniences and lots of clever hidden storage areas.
However, the two diverge when it comes to their basic construction. While the Ridgeline is a unique unibody car-based pickup (it’s distantly related to the Accord), the Sport Trac – like the Explorer SUV that it’s based on – has a separate ladder frame underneath. In this sense the Sport Trac is just like every other pickup out there bar the Ridgeline. However, due to its Explorer SUV roots, it features a novel independent rear suspension. This has a profound effect on its ride and handling; the Sport Trac rides and handles incredibly smoothly and confidently without any of the jitteriness that afflicts all other pickups (bar the unibody and independent rear suspension-equipped Ridgeline). The Ridgeline has an even more car-like drive character due to its unibody design, but among body-on-frame pickups there simply is no other that drives in such a comfortable and confident manner.
Because it has a full frame, Sport Trac is also capable of real towing and hauling duties. Whereas the unibody Ridgeline is limited to towing 5,000 lbs, the Sport Trac will tow nearly 7,200 lbs in two wheel drive V8 form. Make no mistake, despite the truck’s lifestyle positioning and its very refined drive characteristics, it is very much a real truck.
Like many smaller crew cab pickups, bed capacity is rather limited. While it does have a composite surface that negates the need for a bedliner, it is rather small. Our example was equipped with a removable bed extender that partially compensates for the small bed, but you won’t likely be hauling big sectional sofas with this truck. There are, however, a few small hidden storage compartments that keep loose items tucked away. They are not lockable, however, and even the biggest one is much smaller than the massive in-bed trunk found in the Ridgeline.
Inside, there are yet more niceties that are carried over from the first generation Sport Trac. A rubber floor allows easy cleanup after your dirtiest adventure, and the rear seats fold flat in case you need to carry large items securely inside the truck. There’s also a useful roll-down rear window. In addition to these carryover features, the Sport Trac can be equipped with Sync, Ford’s multimedia interface that provides seamless Bluetooth integration for your phone and full integration for your iPod, Zune, or other MP3 player.
What about the way it looks? Well, that’s subjective. To this writer’s eyes, it’s world’s better looking than the Ridgeline, but so is a nodular goiter. From the nose up to the bed, it looks exactly like a standard-issue Explorer (read: mom’s car) while the bed is festooned with exciting-looking tie-downs promising fun times ahead. It’s truly the automotive mullet: it’s very sober and business-like (almost boring) up front while at the same time hosting a beer-fueled NASCAR tailgate party out back. Ford should have differentiated the front half of the vehicle a bit more from the standard 4-door SUV version of the Explorer, as they did with the original Sport Trac. As it is, there’s a big styling disconnect between the front and rear halves of the vehicle.
You’d also better have a lot of money to spend on gas. Granted, people usually don’t buy pickups for their fuel economy, but as this truck is aimed squarely at recreational pickup users (as opposed to those who need a truck for their livelihood), gas prices are having a pretty serious impact on this truck’s sales this year. With gas prices the way they are, many would-be Sport Trac customers are forgoing trucks altogether. AutoPacific, VehicleVoice’s parent company, expects Sport Trac to sell well a little over 25,000 units this year, way down from the 84,000 units Ford sold in 2002, its best year. Our V8 4WD tester averaged about 15-16 mpg overall with a lot of freeway miles – certainly too thirsty for many of our staff.
In the end, though, it fulfills a unique niche in the marketplace that one would think would be bigger. So many people put up with poor ride and handling in order to get the utility, capability, and character of a pickup. Sport Trac truly offers truck capability with vehicle dynamics bettered only by the Honda Ridgeline – a vehicle that’s plain ugly and has less “real truck” capability. If you’re one of those who finds the combination of comfort and capability appealing, Ford’s got just the truck for you.