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SUVs have a new king with the debut of Ford's Excursion

By Marc Stengel

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  It's not often that I get a chance to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with one of the most significant new contenders on the automotive scene. Don't get me wrong; I'm grateful to attend my share of the new-model introductions that manufacturers host around the country. Only, most new models don't tower over me like Ford's much-ballyhooed new Excursion super-SUV, slated for its formal debut in October. The hood line of the Excursion in four-wheel-drive trim rises to the height of my shoulder; standing in front, I gaze directly into the center of the steering wheel.

The doomsayers have already made much of what is now--and by a wide margin--the largest non-commercial, street-legal passenger vehicle available today. Where one wag dismisses it as the "Ford Extortion," another prophesies an automotive equivalent of the twilight of the gods, with Ford duping witless consumers to join a netherworld excursion from which they will never return. I myself have rallied and will continue to rally a rear-guard action in defense of fun-driving cars upon whose fortunes the truck craze has managed to impinge. But I also applaud the Excursion for the remarkable product it happens to be; and I compliment Ford for its realistic way of putting the Excursion--and the general SUV frenzy--into a healthy and less threatening perspective.

The stats alone boggle the mind. Let's start with the available capacity for nine passengers, plus 48 cu. ft. of cargo aft the third-row bench. "There's enough passenger room," said the Excursion's brand manager, J.C. Collins, at the SUV's recent regional debut in Shelbyville, "to seat nine large adults who don't even like each other very much." Considering that the trunk of an average midsize sedan displaces 16 cu. ft., the Excursion swallows the equivalent of three of these.

If you "roller" out the rear bench, cargo behind the second row swells to 108 cubes; fold-and-tumble this middle row, and suddenly the paradigm shifts. It no longer suffices just to acknowledge the 168 cu. ft. of total interior stowage. This is so much space that Ford must now point out that the floor of the interior will sustain up to 2,000 lbs. of deadweight.

Excursion's permissible permutations of two- and four-wheel-drive, mated to either a 5.4-liter V8, a 6.8-liter V10, or a 7.3-liter V8 turbo-diesel, yield tow ratings of gargantuan proportions. With the V8 that comes standard in two-wheel-drive, you can tow 6,200 lbs. right off the bat. Opt for a V10, which is standard in four-wheel-drive (and available in 2WD), and your tow limit rises to 10,000 lbs., standard. With the turbo-diesel, the tow rating remains 10,000 lbs., but a highest-of-all torque output of 425 ft.-lbs. suggests what evil things you could do to unsuspecting tree stumps or the foundations of small buildings.

Because everyone loves a horse race, comparisons with General Motors' Suburban are inevitable--and Ford glories in them. At 227 inches total length, Excursion is seven inches longer and either four inches taller (2WD) or six inches taller (4WD) than "that other" nine-passenger SUV, which has had the market all to itself for so long. Fending off potshots that Excursion may in fact be too big to be practical, Collins took especial pleasure in pointing out, "Sure. We did our homework. The Excursion will fit any standard 'suburban' garage in length, and it will drive under any standard 'suburban' garage door, even with a roof rack."

The Excursion is built atop Ford's popular, commercial-grade F-250 Super Duty platform, which underpins the three-quarter-ton pickup of the same name. Its ride is surprisingly comfortable, blissfully free of wallow or buck. Handling, even with rugged but unexceptional leaf springs front and rear, is unexpectedly responsive while cornering and braking--a special accomplishment for a truck that so blatantly impersonates a boat. Particularly in the first weeks and months following Excursion's official debut in October, fellow commuters will be hard-pressed to distinguish these new Fords from the GM Suburbans we already take for granted on the roadways. By one interpretation, it's an effective camouflage, consistent with Ford's understandable interest in not sticking out like a poster-truck for conspicuous consumption. At a more subtle level, however, Excursion's seamless merge into the traffic stream reflects Ford's ambitious determination to defuse the us-versus-them controversy that SUV popularity presently engenders.

For instance, each of Excursion's three powerplants are LEV engines whose 43-percent cut in emissions meets "low-emission vehicle" standards years ahead of statutory deadline. Each Excursion incorporates 1,000 lbs. of recycled metals and is, in return, 85 percent recyclable. Perhaps most notably--from the standpoint of sharing the road with the rest of us--each Excursion wears an innovative "BlockerBeam" up front and full-width tow hitch bracket at rear. Because these secondary bumpers are specifically located to make contact with the frame rails of standard passenger cars in a crash, there is reduced likelihood of the giant SUV riding up over the top of a potentially more vulnerable car.

The avowed critics and finger-waggers will, of course, interpret these and other "social-engineering" moves by Ford as just so much spin control. But the fact remains that these innovations are incorporated into Excursion. Whether its design had turned out politically correct or not, the Excursion was meant to be. For at least a decade, a large and vocal public has been clamoring for just such a vehicle from Ford. With its announcement earlier this year, dealers nationwide started taking 30,000 orders for Excursion even before its introduction--and in spite of Ford's limit of 20,000 units for the vehicle's initial "production year."

For anyone who bothers to look, it suddenly becomes clear that the Excursion is but the tip of an even larger iceberg that the automakers--and perhaps best-selling Ford, most notably--must somehow navigate deftly around. Ultimately, it will not pay to build vehicles that draw the scorn of influential critics in media and government. And yet only the most closed-minded of these critics will not acknowledge the sea change that SUVs represent for the auto-buying public. That is why, hard on the heels of Excursion's debut, Ford is quietly introducing yet another innovation that may yet have farther-reaching repercussions than the splashy intro of a notorious new model. Ford is bunching its Explorer, Expedition, and Excursion SUVs into what appears an almost free-standing product line and intends to market these vehicles through para-dealerships called Ford Outfitters.

It's an idea traceable to Land Rover that Ford freely acknowledges "adapting." Yet for a company that sells in one month what Land Rover might sell all year, Ford hopes its Outfitters concept will redefine SUVs as "lifestyle accessories." And indeed this may be an easier message to communicate when Ford's four-door SporTrac "sport/utility pickup" appears next spring, followed by a new mini-SUV the following year. With five very different SUVs representing distinct grades of space, price, powertrain, sportiness, and utility, Ford seems determined to transform itself into the REI of SUVs. If the company succeeds, the Excursion may eventually appear less like a threatening leviathan and more like a mere team player in Ford's unprecedented lineup.

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