ASTORIA, OR – The large SUV segment pie is not as big as it was a few years ago, but Ford Motor Co. wants a larger piece of it, George Pipas, Ford U.S. sales analysis manager, says at an event here to launch the ’07 Expedition and Expedition EL.

Ford officials admit launching a fullsize SUV in a market where gasoline prices are eclipsing $3 a gallon will be challenging, but they maintain there is a core group of buyers who need the capability provided by the Expedition and the Expedition EL, which is 15-ins. (38-cm) larger than the standard version.

Pipas refers to this group as “family adventurers.” He says escalating gasoline prices drove away buyers in the segment that really didn’t need the capability of a large SUV.

“As family adventurers, they’re concerned about safety, security and capability; and capability is demonstrated in such things as towing a vehicle,” Pipas says. “Forty percent of the people today that will buy a large SUV will tow some kind of trailer. That’s a purchase motivation.”

The large SUV market peaked in 2001 at 1 million units, Pipas says, adding Ford expects the market to level off this year and in 2007 at about 650,000 to 700,000 units.

The auto maker expects to maintain a 16% to 17% share of the fullsize SUV market. General Motors Corp. leads the segment. The Chevrolet Tahoe is outselling the Expedition 2:1 year-to-date.

For ’07, the Expedition receives numerous upgrades but will start about $4,300 less than ’06 models, Ford says. Pricing will range from $29,995 to $40,745.

The lower prices reflect Ford’s Way Forward North American restructuring strategy, Paul Mascarenas, vice president of product development-the Americas, tells Ward's.

“(We’re) bringing sticker pricing closer to real-world transaction pricing and using that to drive an increase in residual value,” he says. “So, we’re expecting a significant increase in residual value over the ’06 truck.” Ford expects a 9-percentage-point improvement in resale values.

The new Expedition will come in three trim levels – XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited. The base XLS trim level was dropped for ’07 because it was a slow seller, Ford says.

The larger Expedition EL is not a replacement for the now-defunct Ford Excursion, the massive truck that became poster child for gas-guzzling SUVs and a favorite target of environmentalists. The Expedition is slightly smaller than the Excursion, Mascarenas says.

“In terms of overall length this will be ‘garageable’ for the majority of people. The Excursion was larger than most people’s garages.” Mascarenas says most Excursion owners migrated to F-Series pickups or E-Series vans.

Job One for the ’07 Expedition is this summer at the Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne, MI, he says.

Mascarenas declines to reveal annual production figures, saying only that the auto maker is “being very realistic in its expectations.”

The ’07 Expedition will be available with one powertrain – a 5.4L Triton V-8 engine mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. The new mill produces 300 hp and 365 lb.-ft. (495 Nm) of torque, Ford says, as well as best-in-class towing capacity of 9,200 lbs. (4,173 kg).

The Expedition will deliver 14 mpg (16.8 L/100 km) in the city and 20 mpg (11.7 L/100 km) on the highway and meet Ultra Low Emission Vehicle II standards, Mascarenas says.

The SUV will be available with an upgraded version of Ford’s 4-wheel-drive system, developed in-house by Ford engineers and exclusive to the Expedition and upcoming Lincoln Navigator, slated to bow later this year.

The 4WD system has very little carryover from the ’06 model, Brian Hildreth, Expedition powertrain integration supervisor, tells Ward's.

“The system that we haven’t taken the opportunity to upgrade, because it’s such a tough product, is the front axle in this vehicle. But the 4WD transfer case is all-new for ’07, and the drive lines that bring it to the wheels are all new,” Hildreth says.

Engineers focused on efficiencies in the rear axle for better fuel economy, with improved lube flow capability in the rear axle.

The new Expedition gains a bevy of standard safety features, such as Safety Canopy 3-row side airbag curtains and AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control. The new SUV is expected to deliver a double 5-star crash-safety rating, Ford says.

The interior borrows design cues from Ford’s best-selling F-Series pickup, with light-colored leathers and other surface materials accented with simulated chrome-rimmed gauges and ducts.

Increased insulation, thicker side glass and an acoustical windshield contribute to a quiet cabin, allowing normal conversation between front- and third-row occupants.

Of all the upgrades, Ford is touting the available PowerFold third-row seats as a potential “why buy” for customers and a feature competitors don’t offer.

The exterior also was influenced by the F-Series, borrowing the 3-bar grille and raised “powerdome” hood.

bpope@wardsauto.com