Production of Ford Motor Co.'s heavily revamped '02 Explorer/Mountaineer sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) begins this fall at plants in Louisville and St. Louis, with the new models set to hit dealers in January.

The sourcing marks a bit of a departure. Currently, Mountaineer is assembled only in Louisville, but the '02 version will go into both plants.

Also a departure is the styling, as the automaker looks to better differentiate the two SUVs. The Explorer gets a more modest update befitting the world's best-selling SUV, while the Mountaineer gets a much edgier, less truck-like appearance from the A-pillar forward. It also features aluminum trim accents that give it a “look of precision” that will “carry through all Mercury products,” according to chief designer J Mays. Unlike the Explorer, the Mercury features full-time all-wheel drive.

The retailored Mountaineer/Explorer, on sale in January, will be the first to get Ford's new optional safety canopy head protection system. Showcased at the Detroit auto show earlier this year, the system consists of two headliner-mounted air bags that stretch from the front to the second row of seats and inflate during side impacts. In summer 2001, Ford will add a rollover feature to the device. Using sensors to detect when a rollover is about to occur, the system will inflate the canopy for a full six seconds to hold occupants inside the passenger compartment. Standard are seat belt pretensioners, as will be sensors to detect occupant position and size and whether a seat belt is in use. The additional sensors will be available in fall 2001 on Explorer/Montaineer, but they will bow this fall on the Windstar minivan.

Other changes to the vehicles:

  • A third row seat has been added. It folds flat into the floor and is standard on Mountaineer, optional on Explorer.

  • An independent rear suspension replaces the solid axle in current models to accommodate the extra seat and provide a smoother ride.

  • Optional are adjustable pedals and telescoping steering wheel.

  • Base is a new 4L, single-overhead-cam, 210-hp V-6 mated to a new Mazda Motor Corp.-built 5-speed manual transmission. A new truck version of the Lincoln LS 5-speed automatic is optional. Optional is an aluminum version of Ford's 4.6L Triton V-8, available only with the automatic. At 240 hp, it boasts 25 hp more than the outgoing 5L V-8. A diesel is expected for export markets.

  • AdvanceTrac stability control, similar to that available on the Lincoln LS, will be offered later in the model year.