Ford redesigned the Explorer to secure its position as the leader in the ever-competitive midsize SUV segment. Built on the F-150's architecture, Ford successfully built a solid contender in the traditional SUV market.

The Explorer's new front-end treatment and grille is reminiscent of the F-150's style and the Super Duty's boldness. The rear looks like prior years' but with new taillights. Most of our staff was underwhelmed by the average-looking wheels. All in all, the exterior looks good but doesn't surprise anyone familiar with the Explorer franchise. Its middle-of-the-road styling neither impresses nor distresses.

Slip inside its camel-leather-colored interior, however, and the '06 stands apart from its previous generations. Eye-catching textures, leather seats, in-dash navigation, and assertive styling never push the aesthetic envelope but still impart a rich feel. Unfortunately, sitting in the Explorer's front seats is also a cramped experience. We have big and tall guidos, average Joes, and the vertically challenged working for our mag. All of us felt that the Explorer could offer more spacious seating arrangements.

The fold-down seats on this seven-passenger vehicle all lie flat, which is a handy cargo-carrying feature. Some staffers felt that the front seats could be more comfortable, but appreciated the extra A/C in the back. Ford spent a lot of time and effort reducing cabin noise, and it worked.

Driving the new Explorer offers a surprisingly solid and stable experience, thanks to its ruggedized frame. There was no significant body roll during hard turns. Its 4.6L V-8 had sufficient power with, say, two people in it, but we wondered how it would perform fully loaded with a group of car campers. We suspect that the Explorer could benefit from a larger engine.

Off-road, the Explorer handled respectably, although it could use more ground clearance. We recommend (from experience) that you at least pull off the sidesteps before tackling any off-highway obstacles taller than your ankles (sorry, Ford).

Ford's '06 Explorer is a strong all-around SUV, that's about the same as previous years, but better, and that might be enough for it to stay on top of its segment.