Hybrid Vigor

Ford's Explorer Sport Trac offers the best of both worlds.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The basic idea behind a so-called crossover vehicle is to take the best attributes of a pair of different vehicles and create something new-and better. This line of thinking has produced several hybrid vehicles of interest to hunters and fishermen, but the best of the bunch so far is the Ford Explorer Sport Trac, a winning cross between a compact sport utility and pickup. In fact, the design and execution work so well the editors of Field & Stream gave the truck the coveted "Best of the Best" Award (see December 2001). In particular, the Sport Trac exemplifies hybrid vigor, a term used by fisheries biologists to explain the special attributes of a crossbreed. Such species are tougher, more adaptable, and more aggressive than either parent.

After living with this vehicle for a year, I can state the following: The Sport Trac is a near perfect marriage of the best attributes of a sport utility and pickup. Inside the passenger compartment, you'll find seats that can comfortably accommodate four full-size adults.

In another respect Ford got the interior just right. The most common complaint I hear about modern "gussied-up" sport utilities (and even some top-of-the-line pickups) is that interiors are too nice. Fabric seats and carpeted floors present a daunting challenge to hunters and fishermen who come back covered with mud and other crud. In fact, I often hear hunters say, "I want a truck with an interior I can hose out."

Well, the Sport Trac features a rubberlike floor covering that cleans up nicely with a sponge and water. (In addition, the thick mat helps insulate occupants from road noise.) Seat fabrics are a durable, stain-resistant twill, the texture of which reminds me of the brier pants I wear when pheasant and quail hunting. After a year of heavy use, the seats still look fresh.

Outside, you'll find an innovative plastic-composite pickup bed. Though this bed is considerably shorter than a standard steel bed, it is well designed.

In essence, it's a built-in bed liner. In my yearlong test, I dropped heavy coolers, fully loaded duffel bags, field-dressed deer, and other bulky hunting, fishing, and camping gear in the bed. To date, the surface shows no scratches or dents. The composite material also washes clean quickly, so getting rid of mud, blood, and other crud is a snap.

The short cargo bed (50 inches) can be extended by ordering the optional bed extender. This is a metal cage that operates in two ways. Folded into the bed, it creates a storage pocket against the upright tailgate in which small items (tackle boxes, groceries, etc.) are prevented from sliding around loose in the bed. Folded on the lowered tailgate, the extender delivers an extra 24 inches of storage space.

Great as the sport trac is, I felt it could benefit from a short list of selected aftermarket products designed to enhance performance. First was a new exhaust system.

A performance exhaust system designed to more efficiently rid the engine of exhaust gases is a very cost-effective way to get more power without increasing fuel consumption. The DynoMax Ultra Flo SS system (800-767-3966; www.DynoMax.com) offers a straight-through design that maximizes air flow and power. Though you'll hear a bit more noise, it isn't enough to scare deer or turkeys. At $129, it's a bargain, and it's completely street legal.

Before installation, the Sport Trac averaged 13.3 miles per gallon. The truck was also a bit sluggish at lower speeds. If the Sport Trac has a weakness, it's the 4-liter V-6 engine. Though the V-6 ultimately produces 205 horsepower at 5,250 rpm and 240 foot-pounds of torque at 3,750 rpm, it could take its sweet time getting up to speed. Part of the problem was the stock muffler, which choked off the engine. After installation, the truck averaged 14.7 mpg-an improvement in fuel economy of 11 percent. In addition, the truck's engine performed beetter, especially in towing and hill-climbing situations.

To improve towing performance, we installed an aftermarket transmission oil cooler and temperature gauge from B&M; Racing and Performance Products (818-882-6422; www.bmracing.com). The idea, in this case, is to keep the transmission nice and cool when under load while towing. The gauge allows the driver to monitor transmission fluid temperatures and catch any signs of trouble early. Again, the cost ($120 for both) is a bargain.

(Auxiliary transmission coolers serve another purpose as well. Many radiator boilovers are actually caused by the transmission when the heat it throws off overwhelms the stock transmission cooler. The extra heat is then passed down the line to the radiator, which is already fully employed in cooling the engine. The extra heat simply overloads the system.)

For heavy offroad use, I opted for the Superwinch S6000 electric winch (860-928-7787; www.superwinch.com). This unit features 6,000 pounds of pulling power and planetary gears (the best choice for outdoorsmen) and uses a quick-mount platform based on a Class III receiver. To install, simply slide the unit into the receiver and hit the trail. When you return home, the winch slides out for storage in the garage or shed. By going with front and rear Class III receivers (as I did on the Sport Trac), the winch can be operated fore or aft, depending on the best pull angle. Cost with all accessories is just over $1,700. Last, I installed an LSII fiberglass tonneau cover from A.R.E. (800-649-4273; www.4are.com). These days, you simply can't leave any gear in sight, no matter how far from paved roads you are. The tonneau cover ($669) provides lockable storage to protect my guns, fly rods, tackle boxes, and other valuable gear from itchy fingers.

The cover on my test Sport Trac is a camo prototype built specially for Field & Stream. Most owners will opt to have the cover painted to match the factory paint of the truck.

The LSII features gas props that make opening the cover easy on your back, as well as pull-down straps that ease closing the cover. The clamp-on frame installs in minutes, and the cover can be removed if needed.

All in all, the performance-enhanced ford sport Trac is a versatile hunting and fishing vehicle-a perfect synthesis between the sport utility and the pickup. You get the comfortable interior and people-hauling ability of a sport utility, but still can take advantage of the exterior storage and load-hauling capability of a pickup. It's the best of both worlds.