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2003 Ford Expedition

Plush Puller

Ford ups the luxury ante with its greatly enhanced 2003 Expedition.

As popular as Ford trucks are, the last design of the Expedition was a bit of disappointment for some. It had no major flaws, and it sold well since its introduction in 1997, but two characteristics kept it from being as good as it should have been.

The steering system had a less-than-stellar on-center feel, which is something that wouldn’t have been so noticeable had it not been accentuated by the somewhat top-heavy feel that went along with it. The good news is that the newly redesigned 2003 Ford Expedition exhibits neither of those traits.

Steering has been improved greatly, resulting in a nice tight on-center feel without requiring too much effort of its driver, and excess body roll has been all but eliminated.

Ford also did an admirable job on the powertrain. Equipped with a 5.4-liter single-overhead cam V-8, the Expedition never left us wanting more oomph—as rare as it was mystifying. Though the engine only produced 260-horsepower it was much more driveable thanks to its 350 foot-pounds of torque. Credit also must go to the use of the 3.73:1 rear axle and the 2.84:1 first gear and the 1.55:1 second gear.
The combination was good enough for a sub-10-second zero to 60 mph time, which won’t win any drag races, but overall, the truck was torquey enough, with little effort needed to get it moving in stop-and-go traffic.

At 60 mph the truck was oozing along at a leisurely 1,750 rpm in overdrive. With a trailer in tow, 2,300 rpm would maintain that speed in third gear with the converter locked.

Driving up a 7 percent grade with a boat in tow, the truck dropped down to second gear. It took 3,500 rpm to maintain speed, but because the truck was so well insulated, the interior remained quiet, with no droning or unwelcome harmonics.

Downhill, the Expedition’s four-wheel-disc setup proved powerful enough. Brake feel was adequate for towing, though they did feel a little spongy. But to its credit, it was a high-density sponge. The system doesn’t measure up to that of the current Dodge Ram, but it worked well enough for folks who aren’t so picky.

What was remarkable at highway speeds was the Expedition’s ride quality. Over undulating concrete pavement, the Expedition delivered a supple ride unparalleled by most other SUVs. Unfortunately, the interior did emit some squeaks and plastic rattles when traveling over some harsh bumps. Press vehicles typically lead a hard life, but the truck only had 4,000 miles on it at the time.

Though the newly minted independent rear suspension made for a great ride, a trait soccer moms everywhere will appreciate, it’s not something that lends itself to towing 8,000-pound boats.

Vehicles with independent rear suspensions tend to squat under acceleration, and the Expedition was no different.  That wasn’t a huge factor, but the system tended to squat to the side in curves and left the driver feeling a little uneasy in turns. On the highway, blend this characteristic with a long curve, a dip in the pavement and a truck passing by and you’ve got a handful. However, it likely wouldn’t be much of an issue with a lighter boat in tow.

A possible fix for this might be stiffer springs, and those are supposedly coming to later models. Another fix might be the optional four-corner air suspension.

If that gets tidied up by the folks in Dearborn, then the Expedition would make one competent tow vehicle. Even with stiffer springs aft, it likely would still ride better than anything with a live axle—meaning, virtually every other truck and SUV on the market. That’s good news because there really is a lot to like about the new Expedition.

For example, the front seats on our test vehicle came not only with heaters, but they also featured air conditioning. The cooling air was vented through the perforated leather seating surfaces, pushed by a blower motor behind the dash. Even better, they came with adjustable settings, from one to five. Each system worked great and made cold mornings and hot afternoons easy to deal with.
Likewise, the rear seat passengers had their own HVAC controls, which, in addition to having dedicated fan-speed and temperature-control settings, also offered a choice of floor or roof vents. This is ideal for cool air to drop from the headliner vents or hot air to rise from the floor ducts. The rear quarter windows also pivoted outward for ventilation. Nice.

The truck also came with such amenities as a DVD player and headphone jacks, which is ideal for long road trips with children. The information center on the dash allowed the driver to set his or her preferences, including automatic locking, headlamp delay and other functions. Seat memory also was great, especially if two drivers share the same car.

You could say that Ford recognized how often SUVs are used for grocery-getting and carpools to soccer practice. And for those uses, the independent rear suspension is a smart move. It makes the ride more compliant than competitive models, which is always a good selling point.

However, the soul of the Expedition is still a truck, which means it must pull more than its weight from time to time. As is, the Expedition fills the first niche beautifully. To fill the second and qualify it for serious towing duty, Ford will have to tweak the independent rear suspension to make it more, well, truck-like.

 

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