In 2000, when Explorer SUV sales peaked at 445,157 units, leadership was the name of the game at Ford Motor Co.

The auto maker boasted 14 domestic vehicles among the top three nameplates in their segments, per Ward's classification. Seven, including Explorer, were class leaders, while respected models such as the Taurus, Focus and Windstar were among the three No.2s and four No.3s.

Much has changed in half a decade. Only 10 Ford vehicles compete among the top three in various segments through June of 2005, with five sitting atop segments; three holding position No.2; and two at No.3.

Models such as the Honda Odyssey, Nissan Altima and Toyota Tacoma convincingly have unseated longtime Blue Oval breadwinners atop the sales charts, and the competition continues to stiffen for Ford vehicles still in the lead.

Then there is the Ford Explorer, the best-selling SUV for the past 15 years and one of the few properties where being class president remains paramount to the auto maker. Four years after the vehicle's most-significant redesign, Ford invests oodles of hard-to-come-by cash into an '06 refresh aimed at retaining its crown in the slumping middle SUV segment.

The vehicle debuted to journalists in Lake Placid, NY, weeks after the SUV market turned in an 8.5% first-half sales decline. This year, the Chevy TrailBlazer lags Explorer by only 16,400 units — one more creative incentive campaign by General Motors Corp. and the Explorer's lead could be toast.

Alas, the list of upgrades is long and significant for the Explorer in '06: The vehicle earns a new V-8, with more horsepower and torque, while coughing up lower emissions. The mill is paired with Ford's first in-house 6-speed automatic transmission. The new unit performs on a par with the Lincoln Navigator's ZF Group-built 6-speed on which it is based.

The frame, redesigned in-house for cost savings, is 95% new, stiffer and less likely to bend. New adaptive airbags better cushion occupants during crashes and bigger brakes, increased by 15%, bump payload 10%. The interior is completely revamped, including comfier seats. All this comes despite a lower cost of entry.

Ford slashes average Explorer prices $1,750 in order to keep pace with the hotshot cross/utility vehicles threatening to ruin the SUV parade.

Ford Div. President Darryl Hazel insists the new value proposition may surprise the pundits predicting Explorer sales will sink to 200,000 units annually (down from 339,333 in 2004).

The price-slashing strategy comes as no surprise. Ford needs to readjust stickers to meet growing competition without continuing to resort to $5,000 rebates. The sticker reduction is being made possible by the continuing decline in costs of electronic features, such as stability control, and use of a significant percentage of carry-over parts from the current model.

The new Explorer bows this fall with a base price of $27,175 and will top out at $33,160 before options, such as 4-wheel drive and navigation are added.

If prices of the most serious competitors remain at current levels, Explorer will be undercut only by the Nissan Pathfinder. It starts at $25,580 and offers a better base package (sans incentives) with a higher-output mill and less expensive 4WD.

While Explorer's standard equipment includes a 4L V-6 mated to a 5-speed transmission, Ford expects more buyers than normal (traditionally 20%) to gravitate to the V-8, given its improvements.

The new 4.6L V-8 (similar to the 3-valve pushing Mustangs and F-150s), is capable of 292 hp and 300 lb.-ft. (406 Nm), a notable increase over the outgoing 4.6L and a sizable boost over the base V-6's 210 hp, 254 lb.-ft. (344 Nm).

The Explorer remains a thoroughbred truck. The interior and exterior are fashioned to better mimic the company's flagship F-150, which has a cabin renowned for quietness and quality materials, while its skin has proven tough and appealing.

Two much-needed options hit the '06 Explorer — navigation and power-folding third-row seats that actually fold flush with the floor, as opposed to the slightly inclined fold-flats of the predecessor.