2003 Ford Expedition Review

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Bob Hall Bob Hall Editor
April 29, 2002

2003 Lincoln Navigator (4/28/2002)

 

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Squamish, B.C — Standing 335 meters tall and sending forth thousands of gallons of water per minute, Shannon Falls is nothing short of spectacular, even during miserable weather conditions. The same could be said for Ford’s second-generation Expedition, which validated its “Best on Road, Best on Dirt, Best in Snow” billing under a variety of driving exercises and real-world journeys through the stunning scenic panoply that is British Columbia.

2003 Ford Expedition

2003 Ford Expedition

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Even those who harbor prejudices toward full-size sport utility vehicles will have to give this 5700-pound machine it due. For it’s noticeably more refined around town and capable off-road than its predecessor. Thanks to confidence-inspiring steering and handling, this new Expedition tames bad roads or weather conditions with such ease that you will forget how much mass is under your control. High praise? Yes, but deserved I think.

This is a vehicle that Ford had to get right. Its first generation has provided billions of dollars in profit since its late 1996 launch. After a $5.45-billion loss last year, the Expedition’s positive numbers are crucial to FoMoCo’s recovery, especially when few other new products are on the immediate horizon.

Tough Tahoe

General Motors didn’t make the Expedition team’s job any easier. GM’s T800 platform raised the bar for full-size trucks and SUVs and gave its Chevy Tahoe and Suburban/GMC Yukon and Yukon XL models a car-like ride and maneuverability previously unknown in such behemoths. Their smoothness and easy steering is truly remarkable. But according to Steve von Forest, Expedition’s chief development engineer, Ford chose a different path.

2003 Ford Expedition

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“Both Yukons and Tahoes really have a lot of body motion and low ride frequency, so they’re very soft riding,” he told us. “With Expedition, we tried for the best balance of steering, handling and ride. We chose a fair amount of body control for a more European feel and more precise steering.”

A number of component upgrades went into creating that European feel, chief among them being the first use of an independent rear suspension in a full-size SUV. Mimicking the front’s double wishbones with gas-filled coil-over shocks, the Expedition’s new independent rear utilizes the porthole-in-frame design introduced on the 2002 Explorer. Unsprung weight is reduced by 110 pounds thanks to upper and lower control arms made of cast aluminum, and having the differential bolted to a frame cross member, making it part of “sprung” weight.

The bottom line here is far better road holding capability, especially on uneven pavement or off-road terrain, both of which translate into superior ride comfort, helped by a new fully boxed frame that’s 70 percent stiffer in torsional rigidity and 67 percent better in bending stiffness. The story there is hydroformed frame rails that run from just in front of the rear suspension to the front wheels, providing precise frame wall thickness matched to specific load locations and eliminating 40 feet of weld lines. Mounted atop the frame is a body shell that’s 42 percent stiffer, thanks in great part to extensive use of structural foam in strategic locations such as B- and D-pillar joints and in underbody channels.      .

Outdoors and outside the box

Numbers are one thing, but making the whole package come together is another. The Expedition’s development team “had to go outside the segment” to find a benchmark for “the total handling package we wanted,” said Steve von Forest. Their choice was BMW’s X5. So along with the independent rear suspension, they created a 1.6-inch wider track (66.9 inches front, 67.2 rear), made 17-inch tires standard, and designed a new, Expedition-specific rack-and-pinion steering gear for better feedback. The latter’s precision and control is a noticeable improvement from the current edition.

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2003 Ford Expedition

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Two elements that didn’t undergo major changes were powertrain and exterior styling. Base power remains Ford’s single-cam, 16-valve, 4.6-liter Triton V-8 with 232 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque. But fully 70 percent (or what von Forest calls “a super rich mix”) of Expedition owners opt for the optional 5.4-liter, SOHC Triton V-8, with 260 horses and 350 pound-feet. All those figures carry over from ’02, but the 4.6-liter gets a new cast aluminum block to save weight and reduce NVH. The 5.4’s cast-iron block received a complete computer redesign that beefed up ribbing, bracing, side skirts and the oil pan flange, again with less noise and fewer vibrations being the goal. The torque curve of each engine was broadened for more low-end grunt. Maximum towing capacity ¾ a major factor for many customers ¾ increases 700 pounds to 8,900 (with the 5.4-liter V-8) and every Expedition comes with a Class IV hitch receiver with both four- and seven-pin connectors. Ford’s 4R70W four-speed automatic remains the sole transmission. It features an overdrive lockout and standard oil cooler.

The most noticeable styling changes are fascias replacing both front and rear bumpers. Up front the fascia splits the egg-crate grille and the hood line is four inches higher. Still, four-wheel-drive models now ride two inches lower to better match the height of passenger cars. In Eddie Bauer trim, the new design is especially attractive because the lower fascia and side cladding is painted a contrasting color rather than the XLT-grade’s gray plastic. Showing the Expedition’s impressive demographics, fully 50 percent choose upscale Eddie Bauer versions versus 15-20 percent of Explorer buyers.

Seating and storage

Full-size SUVs translate into lots of seating and storage, so the Expedition offers three configurations seating up to nine. The second row bench has a center section that slides forward up to 11 inches, giving much easier access to children normally out-of-reach in such vehicles. The other second-row option is two captain’s chairs with a walk-through to the third seat. The second row seats recline; the 60/40-split third row doesn’t, but does have at least as much leg room as a 737 coach seat. Both rows fold flat into the floor to create 110.5 cubic feet of storage space. There are two big news items here: 1) the IRS gave the engineers nine vertical inches and allowed the third-row seat to be folded, and 2) the power fold third-seat option (only on Eddie Bauer). Two sets of buttons in different locations fold and raise the two seats independently.

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2003 Ford Expedition

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2003 Ford Expedition

2003 Ford Expedition

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Ford is justifiably proud of Expedition’s double five-star safety rating, first earned for the ’01 model year. For ’03, besides Ford’s existing Personal Safety System, the Expedition adds standard Brake Assist for automatic full brake boost under panic stop conditions. Optional are a tire-pressure monitoring system, AdvanceTrac stability enhancement system (both developed by Continental Teves), and Ford’s Safety Canopy to provide side impact and rollover protection for the first- and second-row seats. Using separate sensors and deployment strategies for the different situations, the canopy can remain inflated for up to six seconds.  

Have I covered everything new in the new Expedition? No, it would take way too much space. Have I saved the best ‘til last? Maybe, if you’re one of the relatively small percentage of owners who will drive off-road. Among the off-road exercises Ford devised to demonstrate Expedition’s prowess was a 33-percent downhill grade on loose dirt. Set the ControlTrac four-wheel-drive system in four-wheel low, make sure the traction control and AdvanceTrac are on, put automatic transmission in first gear (to limit the revs) and take your foot off the brake pedal. Down you go, safe and secure in a straight line. My description does not do it justice; it was a very impressive display.

There were others, some of which showed competitors laughingly incompetent in low traction situations. Granted that some demonstrations can be cleverly designed to best show off company X’s vehicle in the best possible light. But there seemed to be no hocus pocus here, the Expedition is truly capable in a variety of situations. And if you want a real-world example, how ‘bout driving a rainswept British Columbia Highway 99 ¾ a two-lane, curving road sweeping up and down hills ¾ on the way to Shannon Falls. With the ControlTrac set on “A4WD” (automatic four-wheel drive) the Expedition’s handling and stability gave a darn good imitation of a sports sedan half its weight.

While it probably won’t silence many full-size SUV critics, the new Expedition does all the things that people buy such vehicles for very well indeed. Billy Ford and friends have at least one less thing to worry about. This one should be a big hit.  

2003 Ford Expedition
Base price: $31,295 (4x2 XLT value) — $41,935 (Eddie Bauer 4x4)
Base engine: 4.6-liter V-8 , 232 hp/291 lb-ft; 5.4-liter V-8, 260 hp/350 lb-ft
Length x width x height: 205.8 x 66.9 x 56.3 in
Wheelbase: 119 in
Curb weight: 5271 – 5689 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 14/19 – 13/17 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, Ford Personal Safety System
Major standard equipment: Automatic transmission, AM/FM premium radio CD/cassette, cruise control, remote keyless entry, 17-inch wheels, power adjustable pedals, tilt wheel
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

updated 5/4/02

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