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Discussion Starter #1
SOMETHING about the new Ford Explorer Sport Trac evokes, for me, a Butterfield stagecoach. The passengers go in the coach, the loot is in the strongbox in back, and the horses, of course, are under the hood. Ford could have taken the theme further, but I suppose the driver and the shotgun rider would look silly sitting atop the windshield.

But over all, the Sport Trac — designed by a young (29-year-old) woman, Chelsia Lau — has a real macho look. I wanted to pull up to a stoplight in a cloud of dust and yell, “Whoa!!!”

Another new S.U.V.-based pickup truck, the 2007 Chevrolet Avalanche, looks quite a lot like a container ship. It was styled by John Cafaro, a longtime Corvette designer.

Yes, the redesigned Avalanche bears a strong resemblance to other General Motors trucks built on the same GMT-900 architecture — Suburbans, Yukon XLs, Escalades and the like — but a Sea-Land container would look at home tucked in this Chevy’s distinctive reconfigurable cargo bay.

Styling has always been an issue with the Avalanche, which entered the world as a 2002 model with an array of birthmarks: squared-off wheel wells, a flying buttress linking the cab to the bed and acres of plastic cladding below its beltline.

The truck’s appearance has benefited considerably from a series of cosmetic surgeries. The all-new ’07 Avalanche might still not win a pickup truck beauty pageant, but it is no longer the Ugly Betty of the bunch. “Say what you will about its looks,” G.M.’s vice chairman, Robert A. Lutz, said after the Avalanche’s first year on the market. “But we sold over 100,000 of them, and in the truck market, that’s like found money.” Sales for 2006 totaled 63,687.

It’s hard for me to understand the appeal of these trucklets, whose strength — their Swiss Army knife versatility — is also their weakness. Everything they do comes with a trade-off.

The Sport Trac owner is stuck with a cargo bed just over four feet long. A new two-tier stacking system adds some utility, but hauling a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood will still require sawing that baby in half.

The Avalanche’s raison d’être is theoretically its midgate — the rear wall of the cab, behind the second-row seats — which can be lowered to extend the 63-inch-long bed by another 34 inches inside the cab (displacing back-seat passengers in the process).

This still strikes me as a poor means of hauling things, especially in dirty conditions; the open passenger cabin sucks in dust like a Hoover. Plus, you have to stay with the vehicle when the midgate is open, because the cab cannot be secured.

For real utility, why not just buy a Suburban (which can cost less, depending on equipment) and when extra cargo space is required, fold down the two rear rows of seats? The Suburban can actually handle more cargo and lets you lock up your load. Furthermore, when you aren’t hauling something, you have seats for eight.

Another option is to just buy a real pickup with a real bed. The much more luxurious Ford F-150 King Ranch Edition costs $5,000 less comparably equipped.

Fully loaded, the Avalanche pushes $50,000. My ’07 Avalanche LT 4x4 test vehicle listed at $48,655, and while that may sound steep it is a relative bargain compared with the similar Cadillac Escalade EXT, which can handily exceed $60,000.

In comparison, a loaded Sport Trac tops out under $40,000. The version I tested, an ’07 Sport Trac Limited with four-wheel drive, carried a suggested price of $38,240.

Aside from its prices and its styling, what categories does the Sport Trac win in a nose-to-nose comparison? Just about none — but there are ties.

The Avalanche scores on engines, and it’s no contest. The Chevy’s base engine, a 5.3-liter Vortec V-8, makes 310 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque in its 4-by-4 guise, and it can run on ethanol. The larger available engine, a 6-liter V-8, churns out 366 horsepower and 380 pound-feet. Both power plants run on regular gasoline and come with cylinder deactivation technology to improve fuel economy; highway mileage is rated in the high teens.

The Sport Trac offers either a 4-liter V-6 rated at 210 horsepower or a new 4.6-liter 292-horsepower V-8, which should satisfy longstanding complaints about the Sport Trac’s paucity of power.

Disappointingly, both Ford engines proved thirstier on the road than their mileage ratings (13/19 m.p.g. for either engine with four-wheel drive) would indicate.

Ford does have an advantage in transmissions. The Sport Trac’s slick-shifting six-speed automatic has the Avalanche’s four-speed outgeared anyway.

Ride and handling is where both trucks excel. In back-to-back drives of full-size pickups (from Ford, G.M., Toyota, Dodge and Nissan), the Avalanche was clearly the most stable and comfortable of the lot. What it may lack in towing capacity, compared with big pickups, it more than makes up in better road manners.

Thanks to its Suburban-based one-piece body, the Avalanche is a pussycat to drive, if you don’t mind its lane-hogging width (almost 80 inches). It rides on a stiff, fully boxed frame with a coil-over-shock front suspension, a five-link rear suspension and rack-and-pinion steering.

The optional Autoride suspension, standard on the top-line LTZ, features a semiactive two-position damping control system with body and wheel-motion sensors. Properly equipped, the Avalanche can tow as much as 8,000 pounds. The Sport Trac’s maximums range from 5,090 with the V-6 to 7,160 with the V-8.

For 2007, the Sport Trac combines the Explorer S.U.V.’s frame with the F-150 pickup’s tube-through-tube frame suspension setup, where the cross beams pass through the frame rails. The result, Ford says, is a structure that is much stiffer than the old Sport Trac, which had a stubbier frame and a 17-inch shorter wheelbase.

The Sport Trac’s new front suspension uses a short- and long-arm design with coil-over shocks, tuned for softer damping of bumps and better body control on corners. The independent rear suspension, also new, uses rear coil-over springs, monotube shocks and a stabilizer bar.

The highest praise one might have for both the Avalanche and the Sport Trac is that they handle every bit as well as the sport utilities on which they are based.

But parking can be a chore in the hulking Avalanche, which is a half-foot wider than the Ford. It is even an inch wider than the Silverado pickup. The Avalanche also has an especially wide front track — at 68.2 inches, it is 8 inches wider than the Sport Trac’s. The Avalanche is also 4 inches taller and 11 inches longer. Yet the wheelbase of both is essentially the same, around 130 inches.

Inside, the Sport Trac’s accommodations are akin to coach class, compared with the business-class touches of the Avalanche. Shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder, three rear seat passengers enjoy nearly a foot more room in the Chevy. But I found the Avalanche’s seats uncomfortably hard, especially in front and especially when compared with the Ford’s. Neither offered optimum adjustment.

The Avalanche’s cabin appointments looked more upscale than the Sport Trac’s, but frankly neither offered particularly high-quality materials. I’m no fan of fake wood-grain insets, like those in the Avalanche.

Ford’s cost-cutters searched every crack and crevice in the Sport Trac for places to shave a cent or two; they even replaced the inner-facing side surfaces of the “pleather” seats with cheap fabric.

The Sport Trac’s exterior mirror housings are the flimsiest I’ve seen, and the optional tonneau cover was already fading and marked even on a virtually new vehicle. Armor All, please!

Also, the Ford’s clear-coat paint proved all too easy to pick up swirls, I found, when washing and drying the truck. And its cargo bed is made of “corrosion-proof sheet-molded composite” — plastic, in other words. Various other exterior parts were plastic as well.

Maybe this was all done to save weight; the Sport Trac tips the scales at 4,516 pounds, a big advantage over the base Avalanche’s 5,478 pounds. Add another 150 pounds or so for four-wheel-drive models.

Chevrolet has positioned the Avalanche against other full-size crew-cab pickups and S.U.V.’s. Ford, however, says the Sport Trac’s direct competitors are midrange trucks like the Toyota Tacoma Double Cab, the Nissan Frontier Crew Cab, the Chevrolet Colorado Crew Cab and the Dodge Dakota Quad Cab. Interestingly, all of those pickups cost a lot less than the Sport Trac.

Oddly, both Ford and Chevy consider the Honda Ridgeline a competitor. And if you look at it that way, the strangely styled but highly functional Honda is a solid value, even though it has met resistance in the market at prices from $28,000 to $35,000.

Both Ford and Chevy have positioned their S.U.V.-pickups as no-compromise vehicles even though compromise is what they are all about. But if your needs include occasional light trucking and transporting five or fewer people in a high-character package, the Avalanche or Sport Trac may work for you.

Are either of them a good value? No, not really.

10,961 Posts
Discussion Starter #2
I am a big fan of the ST, but I don't understand this comparo. Two different class vehicles, rated against each other? The GM vehicle is 1,000 lbs and $10,000 more than the Ford and an entirely different class. Of course the bigger vehicle will ride a little better with more mass, but the ST has the best ride of anything else near it's size, and to even compare against the Suburban chassis for a mid-size is impressive after all. Reviews have called the ST lexus quiet and very smooth. The utility aspect (or lack of it) for both vehicles really is an afterthought. They are both compromised in some ways, and who cares if you have to drop the tailgate to take home the proverbial 4x8 once or twice - or every time. That is much easier than having to fuss with that midgate, just to show off the only differentiating feature of a truck that costs such a premium over other trucks that are even more capable.

Not everyone needs a huge suburban-sized vehicle that eats more gas, is far less nimble and harder to park and costs so much more. Heck, you don't even get a 6-speed transmission or IRS with it. Plus too, the Ford has a locking bedcover that makes such a great trunk for secure stowage, and with the tailgate extender, makes a perfect weekend warrior machine for towing dirt bikes and such, yes even with the 4.3 ft bed.
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