The Clever Shark

A selection of links and rants by Tony A. Emond

Adventures in car rental: Ford Expedition 2006

As my friends and acquaintances know, I don’t have a car. That doesn’t mean I don’t drive every once in a while, however; indeed I drive a decent number of different car models via the wonder that is car rental.

Most of the time I like to rent something from the highly variable model range that constitutes “full size cars” nowadays — your Ford Tauruses, Buick LeSabre, Ford Fusion, that sort of thing; obviously I rent for practicality, not styling or excitement or anything like that. Usually renting a “full size” gets you a V6 engine, a CD player, and an air conditioner for which additional fees are always charged, even in the middle of winter.

Last week, however, my local rental agency didn’t have much of anything to offer, so I drove off with a Ford Expedition.

This is not the first time I’ve driven an SUV, far from it. I used to quite like renting those back in the late 90s and early 2000s; my experience includes a Jeep Liberty, a Grand Cherokee, a Chevy Blazer from 1999 and a GMC Envoy borrowed from a friend. The Expedition wasn’t like that though. It was definitely the worst SUV I’ve driven, and I am even tempted to say that it’s the worst vehicle I have yet rented, if I exclude the painfully geriatric junkers I’ve occasionally rented from U-Haul (I think most of us know what those are like).

Why am I being so hard on the Expedition? Dear God, where do I start. For one thing, it’s now built on the F250 platform, and as a result has become a huge, bloated monstrosity. It is ridiculously large. And ridiculously tall. And ridiculously heavy. Even the name itself is ridiculous — an expedition is something you do on foot (that’s the origin of the “ped” root right in the middle of the word). Then again this thing is so tall and wide that you’ll probably have to get out and get to wherever you’re going on foot. Good luck finding indoor parking for this beast.
The first thing you’ll notice is how you don’t just get into this car — you literally have to climb into it. Now I’m not the most height-advantaged individual out there, but I get the feeling that this vehicle isn’t going to be comfortable for anyone to enter. It does have running boards and there is a sturdy-looking handle which you’ll probably want to use so as to swing yourself into your seat, but frankly that’s not a very dignified way of entering a vehicle. And the running boards are pretty short, so that you’ll inevitably find yourself slipping on the edge of it when you want to get out. A friend from work struggled a bit to get into the Expedition, and she’s 6 feet tall. And slim! So it’s not just difficult for short fat blokes like myself.

Once you’re in, you might want to watch out for nosebleeds. You’re sitting very high up indeed. When you’re stuck in traffic you’ll get the sense that you’re coordinating the jam instead of just sitting in it. Some people like that feeling. It makes them think that they can drive faster and closer to other cars — in short, it gives them license to drive like complete morons. Personally I don’t like it. It makes me feel removed from the road, which is just not something that sits well with me. But it is keeping in character with the Expedition’s poor handling and loose steering (more on that later).

Why is the vehicle so high up? that’s a good question. Ground clearance is slightly over 9 inches. About industry-standard, but nothing to shout about. There are a lot of aspects to the size of this vehicle which frankly puzzle me. My favorite SUV to drive so far has been the 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was shorter in both length and height, has more ground clearance (nearly an inch more), and weighed a great deal less than the newer Ford. It’s almost like the Expedition has been sitting at a table in one of those “meat-by-the-pound” Texas steakhouses and been stuffing its gullet for 5 years or so. With girders and chunks of lead.

The result is a pretty awful driving experience.

The Expedition comes with a pretty huge 5.4L V8 engine. That’s one big truck engine, and it sounds very manly indeed. Unfortunately on the highway it reminded me of a speech from Macbeth — “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” You see, if you’re going along at about 100km/h and you want to pass someone, the Explorer is sure to disappoint those looking for more than a lot of drama. The engine responds (admittedly not quite immediately) with a mighty roar… and then very little else.

It’s quite puzzling, actually. The engine has horsepower (300!). And it has torque (365 ft/lbs). You definitely feel it when cornering on a city street, the moment you switch from the brake to the gas; you feel your speed picking up immediately, the body starts its inevitable roll and you’ll be grabbing something besides you to hold yourself up in the Expedition’s stupidly inadequate standard seats. But on the highway, it’s a different story. It’s almost as though the engine has gone into a gentle slumber and is now mad at you for having woken it up — you get the grunts, the flailing of the arms, but very little in the way of additional oomph. If you keep your foot down you’ll eventually feel yourself going a bit faster, but it’s really not as noticeable as the engine’s irate barking would have you believe, and frankly that’s pretty disappointing.

But, you’ll think, surely that’s because this engine is economical?

Well, if you’re used to calculating the fuel consumption on, say, an oil tanker or one of those mining machines that chews up mountains then yes, it’s very economical! However in real world driving the numbers will make you gasp. You see, for roughly 80km covered that day I had to top up the tank with a mind-boggling 14 liters of gas. That means roughly 6 kilometers per liter, or nearly 17L/100k. I could hardly believe it myself. Maybe there was a lot less gas than advertised when I picked it up from the agency, but from what I can tell that’s about what I managed to get. I could practically hear the sounds of Saudis cheering every time I leaned on the gas pedal a little, but those were quickly drowned out by the drowsy rambling of the engine.

Then there’s the ride, which manages to be both soft enough that you get body roll at the slightest of corners, and hard enough that you’ll feel every imperfection of the road right in your kidneys. I don’t know how Ford engineers managed to achieve that craptastic balance of hard ride an soft cornering, or exactly why they’d want to subject their buyers to that experience, but then there are a lot of things I can’t figure out about this vehicle.

Steering is also pretty dismal. It’s comically devoid of feel. Remember those movies from the 50s where you see a guy “driving” a car that’s clearly in front of a projection screen? Remember how this guy would be driving straight forward but would turn the wheel a couple of inches right or left to simulate his actually driving? Well that’s exactly what the Expedition reminded me of. I was able to do that with the steering wheel without changing the direction of the SUV by so much as a millimeter. Admittedly it wasn’t new — it had 23k kilometers on it — but that amount of play is ridiculous. Not unusual in American cars, but ridiculous nonetheless.

The brakes are really no better; they only have two positions, on and off. You’ll find yourself pushing down on the brake pedal and feeling nothing in particular, then woosh! you’re at a standstill, and your luggage has flown up into your windshield. And you’ve discovered that the lateral body roll mentioned earlier translates just as well to the longitudinal axis, of course. It’s all or nothing. That’s not the way civilized vehicles should brake, it just isn’t. This sort of performance is good enough for those who drive pickup trucks, not those who buy land yachts.

Add to these impressions, that the formless standard cloth seats are rubbish (you’d think $100/day would get you leather seats, but nooooooooooo…), that the interior is the usual American array of cheap, ill-fitting plastics and that this Expedition had a steering column-mounted transmission lever, which I absolutely detest. I’m not a cop, a farmer or a pensioner; I think the gear shift should be right in the middle of the car! It makes absolutely no sense to do this in a vehicle which has two separate ‘bucket’ seats, and even less when the space between the seats is already taken up by a stupid cheap plastic console that you can’t move anyway.

I must now reiterate that the size of the vehicle is pretty outlandish. Why do I keep harping on this point? Well, this actually ended up costing me money. You see, the Explorer is over 6 feet in height. And then on top of its almost-80-inch frame, and that makes it too tall to park in most indoor parking garages. I couldn’t get it into my parking space, and had to go to the public lot downstairs — and even then I had to drive very slowly, constantly looking up at the water pipes and signs that hung from the ceiling and in constant fear of hearing that horrible, horrible screeching sound that would mark the moment the SUV had become irremediably wedged into the garage structure. Fortunately that moment didn’t come, but I think that short drive in the garage took about 10 years off my life. And I had to pay for the parking spot.

At this point you must be wondering if there’s anything at all good about this car. Well, it’s big inside. If you ride alone and talk to yourself it probably produces a slight echo. It definitely has 7 seats, and even with all of them up there’s still some decent space in the boot. Access to the rear seats is made easy by having two buckets in the second row of seats which leaves you with a little alley to get to the back; alternately the middle seats fold pretty neatly.

Aside from that, the level of equipment was pretty good. The steering wheel was adjustable, as were the pedals. There are only four speakers, but they did a pretty good job in diffusing the sound through the vehicle’s cavernous interior.

In short, the Ford Expedition makes an OK living room, but a terrible car.

Thu, December 7 2006 » Uncategorized

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