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1997 FoRd ExPeDiTiOn FaCts

By Alan Vonderhaar Gannett News Service

I guess if they wanted try to fool anybody, they would have named it the King Kwik.

But given that it stands 6 feet, 4.4 inches and stretches 17 feet, that would have been a hard sell.

No, Expedition is a good name for a vehicle that can accommodate nine humanoids or tow up to 8,000 pounds, on road or off -- not what you'd want to use very often for running down for a quart of milk. Definitely not a Mommymobile station wagon alternative, the Expedition is a brawny step up from Ford's wildly popular Explorer.

Based on the F-100 full-size pickup chassis, it falls between Chevy/GMC's Tahoe-Yukon class and the pilot-optional-and-extra-but-probably-required Suburban. This niche might be called the serious hauler's territory, as opposed to the Suburban's deadly serious turf.

Unless you're a Hollywood type with more money than sense, or have truly massive and persistent cartage needs, Expedition might be the better choice than Suburban. The better question is, perhaps, do you even need an Expedition?

If ''carlike'' is the new litmus test of a truck's essential goodness, the Expedition is positively saintly.

That doesn't mean the claim of accommodating nine human beings is anything other than hyperbole. My tester was set up thusly, and I could neither figure out how anybody other than a tiny teen-age gymnast could get back to the third bench, nor how they could long endure it.

No, realistically, think about getting the front bucket seats with console and the standard rear bench (which folds down 60/40 as desired), keeping open the rearmost compartment for baggage. With the third seat in place, there's room only for a couple of fat attaches between third class and the hatch. Four adults would be well served; five could manage. Much the same can be said of the much more driver-friendly Explorer.

The Expedition comes in only two trim levels: The XLT is loaded with goodies, and the Eddie Bauer adds leather seating and a lot of eyewash.

Expedition is offered only as a four-door, but can be had in 2-wheel and 4-wheel-drive. Two-wheel drive might make sense in a benign climate where the primary mission is towing, but the 4WD mechanism is hard to turn down.

I tested an XLT 4x4.

It's the sleekest of the class, with a relatively short-looking hood and a muscular rounding of its skin. The interior will be familiar to anyone who's been in a new F-150 -- very carlike.

I think a short person would do better mounting up than I did -- to me, the running board is more obstruction than help, although the built-in lights are nice.

Both the high perch and 5,392-pound curb weight give the Expedition a commanding feel, although, in 4x4 trim with the optional trailer towing package and automatic four-corner leveling, the machine felt rather floaty, carrying just little old me and a couple of lightweights. That's to be expected. This is less passenger hauler than prime mover.

Ride quality was still quite good. The 4x4's optional setup included air shocks up front and air springs in the rear, with load-leveling smarts built in. It even jacks the truck up an inch for extra clearance when the low range of the transfer case is employed.

The tester had the optional, larger V-8. The 5.4-liter single-overhead-cam mill makes 230 hp and 325 foot-pounds of torque. For the $565 premium charged, that seems like a modest boost from the standard 4.6-liter version's 215 horses and 290 foot-pounds. I'd want the extra 12 percent torque, though, if I were contemplating much towing. The lack of a diesel option is a serious fault in this size category.

No rap on the ''Triton'' engines. They're similar to the modular family used in some of Ford's larger cars, and technically advanced. The 5.4 propelled my easy-living Expedition to 60 in a bit over 10 seconds, quite good for the class. Pulling a 7,900-pound trailer would be a different story.

The four-speed automatic was silken and shifted with hardly a bump.

The Expedition has an easy-to-use four-wheel-drive system. A heavy-duty version of what Ford calls Control-Trac, it's set by a rotary knob on the dash. In normal driving, 2H is recommended -- power going to the rear wheels only. In mixed conditions, i.e., where roads are by turns dry and slick, flip the knob to A4WD. If any rear-wheel slippage is detected, an electromagnetic clutch locks front and rear drivelines together. Once stability returns, they're disconnected. This occurred almost imperceptibly on snow-covered trails.

If conditions are plain bad, 4H can be turned on at any speed to lock front and rear axles in sync semi-permanently. The 4L (low range four-wheel drive) setting is knob-twisting easy, too, but you must be stopped with brake on and transmission in Neutral. I used this mode to allow me to creep down an icy hill on which even the standard four-wheel-disc antilock brakes were having a bit of a problem.

I prefer systems like Audi's and Jeep's, which allow for a center differential that can apportion power fore and aft by degrees -- they're more versatile.

In ordinary conditions, the brakes stopped the big boy reasonably well, although the brake pedal felt unnecessarily vague.

The Expedition was a challenge in tight spots, with a turning radius of 40 feet -- still seven feet less than the Suburban's.

The ''premium'' 4-speaker AM/FM/cassette unit was adequate, but I'd recommend the 9-speaker ''Mach'' upgrade.

The Expedition has a 30-gallon gas tank. A good thing, in light of the 13/17 EPA estimates and my dismal 14.0 recording.

Base price on the 4x4 Expedition XLT is $29,870. The tester had a package consisting of cruise control, the ''popular equipment group'' (six-way power driver's seat, privacy glass, dual illuminated visor mirrors and luggage rack), and forged aluminum wheels, $1,770; upgraded 5.4-liter V-8, $565; lighted running boards, $435; skid plates, $105; tow hooks, $40; trailer towing package $450; dual air conditioning, $755; heated side mirrors, fog lamps and engine block heater, $190; third seat, $855; leather captain's chairs, $1,300, and six-disc CD changer, $475.

Total price came to $36,737, with luxury tax and freight, minus a hefty discount for the packages.

Payments would be $745, assuming 20 percent down, 10 percent interest and 48 installments. Leasing plans are available to reduce that figure.

1997 Ford Expedition Specs

Body Style/drivetrain: Rear-wheel/4-wheel drive 4-doors 5-, 6- or 9-passengers Trim lines: XLT, Eddie Bauer Price: $27,500-$35,000 Just the basics: Dual front airbags and anti-lock brakes standard; air conditioning; fog lamps; running boards; 26- or 30-gallon fuel tanks; passive anti-theft system; power windows and door locks; optional third row theater seating; battery saver feature. owertrain: 4.6-liter V-8 (215 hp) 5.4-liter V-8 (230 hp) 4-speed automatic transmission Mileage: 14/20 (city/highway) Length: 204.6 in. Wheelbase: 119 inches Weight: 4587 pounds Cargo Cap.: 118.3 cu.ft. Trail. Cap.: 7400 pounds Grnd. Clrnc.: N/A Ford launched the new full-size Expedition earlier this year, which includes seating options for 5-, 6- or 9-passengers _ and it can fit in the standard garage. The Expedition is comfortably equipped and handles smoothing on all driving surfaces. The four-wheel drive option makes it a complete sport utility model.