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Nashville Scene Not Fish Nor Fowl

Ford's Sport Trac hauls new paradigm into view

By Marc K. Stengel

MAY 8, 2000:  It could hardly have been a more propitious omen. Just in time for "The Big Fishing Trip," I received for evaluation Ford's new-for-2001 Explorer Sport Trac. It's one of those trendy, hybrid S-U-Whatever vehicles that seats five in a sedan-like cockpit but also boasts an abbreviated cargo box outside, la pickup. The implications were obvious. I would soon be motoring back from Dale Hollow Lake with a load of messy fish, because now I had just the place to stash 'em without sliming up the interior.

The wife and kids misunderstood my excitement, of course. They merely assumed that I was giddy about playing midweek hooky for two days. The prospect of my returning chez nous with a brimming kettle of slithering fish never entered their collective mind. Not having managed to land so much as a single pitiful perch during the entire extent of my married-with-children life meant nothing now. A numinous Sport Trac had appeared unexpectedly in my hour of direst need. I sped over to fetch my buddy Jay, and then I swung east into the golding dawn to put paid to my career as a piscatorial pariah.

The Sport Trac is a curious mixture of old and new. Based on Ford's phenomenally best-selling Explorer compact sport/utility vehicle, it appears--from inside-out--to have been merely updated for the millennium. There's a distinct Ford feel to the Explorer cabin that one either likes or not. I fall into the former category, but I can understand why others might not favor the taut, firm upholstery and spare layout of switchgear and instrumentation. What is efficient and uncluttered for some is Spartan and unfriendly for others--particularly those weaned in the plushy, soft embrace of General Motors.

There are a few clever interior refinements in this Sport Trac that suggest some sort of novelty is afoot, however. Under the center console, for example, is a removable "soft pack" that functions like a little gadget bag, should you choose to remove it from the vehicle for a hike or such. The bulbous knob on the dash, labeled "Vent," invites an exploratory push: S-s-s-t. The vertical rear window has just retracted about an inch-and-a-half. You can lower it all the way by twisting this same knob to the left.

Then there's the three-seater rear bench that folds, 60/40, to allow versatile interior storage with or without accompanying rear riders. Jay and I tumped them both flat, the better to stow my half-dozen or so fishing rods scrounged mindlessly over four decades. In the back wall of the cab, under the retracting rear window, are two handy panels opening onto covered storage for small or flat items like map books, flashlights, and umbrellas.

The in-dash CD player literally eats up to six disks, which you can load and unload in any order--lots better than the old remote changers in the cargo hold behind the rear seats, that's for sure. Hey, wait a minute! There is no interior cargo hold. If at this point you take off the blinders and direct your attention outside, you can probably see the paradigm shifting before your very eyes. This not-quite-SUV has sprouted a bustle in the shape of a cargo box measuring a cute and tiny 4 ft. by 4 ft. by 2 ft.

What's more, it's fashioned entirely of high-strength, low-weight sheet-molded compound (SMC), a structural plastic-like material familiar to fans of the Dodge Viper sports car, but entirely unprecedented in this new utilitarian guise. Nevertheless, Ford assures us they've pounded, thrashed, scratched, and dumped all over their new cargo-carrying paradigm, and the Sport Trac's SMC has not only endured but also refused to chip or to ding. Even though Ford's SUWhatever follows on the heels of Nissan's Frontier Crew Cab and Dodge's Dakota Quad Cab, the Sport Trac is the first of these hybrids that has not started life as a pickup.

Genuine trucksters will, of course, grumble about the mere 30 cubic feet of cargo stowage. But nobody has outlawed real pickups, as far as I know. What this Sport Trac means to address is the need many of the rest of us have for those spontaneous, infrequent, unavoidably messy errands like hauling weekly recycling piles, annual mulch heaps, or once-in-a-lifetime fishing bonanzas. Like both the Nissan and Dodge variants, this Ford also features an optional ($195) tubular stainless-steel "cargo cage" that folds out onto the lowered tailgate to create a 6-foot bed. There's also a $590 optional two-piece bed lid, or hard tonneau, that locks in place and incorporates a divider panel for organizing cargo loads. Unique to Sport Trac is an external power port in the wall of the cargo bed for operating, say, air pumps, portable vacuums, camping lights, even fax machines and cell phones if you're really roughing it.

At 205 horsepower, with a tow rating of up to 5,260 lbs. and payload capacity up to 1,500 lbs., Sport Trac actually acquits itself quite well in the roadwork department. And as an off-roader, the 4-by-4 version employs Ford's customary shift-on-the-fly scheme for toggling between two- and four-wheel-drive. (A 4-by-2 model is also available.) For the moment, however, its work and play potentials are starkly overshadowed by its darned offbeat looks. And, yes, I think that's what scared the fish. No matter. After two days of dangling limp lines into glassy waters and listening to endless variations on the theme of "shoulda been here last week," I was sort of in the mood for chicken anyway.

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