WHISTLER, British Columbia, Canada – Legend claims that the shrill cry of the western hoary marmot, from which this Canadian ski mecca takes its name, echoes endlessly from these forested slopes.

So why do things seem so quiet? Either the critter’s been schussed into extinction by runaway Rossignols, or Ford Motor Co. speaks the truth about its ’03 Expedition’s improved NVH performance.

At highway speeds, conversation is effortlessly maintained between the driver’s seat and the third-row bench at the rear of this cocoon on wheels. Ford isn’t blowing smoke when it says structural foam – which contributes to a 42% increase in Expedition’s torsional stiffness – lessens road-induced interior noise by 2 decibels.

Added insulation around the vehicle’s door handles, redesigned weather stripping in the glass runs and a thicker windshield (by 15%) reduce the likelihood of hearing any whistlers – though one XLT in the test fleet had a baby marmot in it somewhere.

This is not to say the ’03 Expedition, scheduled to reach showrooms in late spring, is devoid of disquieting elements – interior or exterior.

The plain-looking instrument panel and dash are dotted with four hockey-puck-sized vents. While easy to manipulate, they’re jarring to the eye.

And speaking of cabin environment – a leading cause of domestic disputes – don’t expect to see dual climate controls until late in the model year.

Outside, Expedition retains the Ford face and accompanying physique. Strong and unpretentious, yes, but all too familiar.

This is, of course, purposeful. Ford wants the Expedition to wave the brand flag while honoring the down-to-earth character of its customers.

Which isn’t to say Expedition passengers are roughing it, though. The standard-equipment 40/20/40 "center-slide" second-row affords nifty seating flexibility found nowhere except the interiors of its richer relatives, Lincoln Navigator and Volvo XC90.

The center portion allows Junior to move within arm’s reach of the captain’s chairs in front, but Ford is loath to label it "the slap seat."

And then there is the "Power Fold" third-row 60/40 split bench. This, like the innovative second-row, is a game-changer for SUVs. But it’s available only on the top-end Eddie Bauer edition – as a $455 option. And let’s not forget that the ’03 Expedition, like its Navigator cousin, is one of the few fullsize SUVs on the market to feature independent rear suspension, a welcome driving-dynamics enhancement that may not excite the average customer who’s wowed by bells-and-whistles, but nonetheless pleases as an everyday feature by improving handling and cornering confidence.

Although its 8,900-lb. (4,045-kg) tow rating earns best-in-class honors, even the optional, 260-hp 5.4L SOHC Triton V-8 experiences occasional power lags during hill climbs. This could portend more than the intended amount of SUV-related "adventure" when hauling the Airstream up the Rockies. Moreover, the Triton V-8’s 260-hp rating doesn’t categorically outgun competitors like Toyota Motor Corp.’s Sequoia, which musters 245 hp and 315 lb.-ft. (427 Nm) from a lot less motor (4.7L).

2003 Ford Expedition

And on paper, the Triton is bested by General Motors Corp.’s 4.8L OHV V-8 in the Chevy Tahoe, which delivers 275 hp – although the Chevy’s 290 lb.-ft. (393 Nm) of torque pales in a mass-moving contest to the Triton’s satisfying 350 lb.-ft. (475 Nm). Nor should we ignore the fact that there’s a new generation of V-6s, like Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s 3.5L VQ, that produce as much or more horsepower than Ford’s getting from its unstressed (though still silky) 5.4L of V-8.

(Note to powertrain engineers: Pick John Coletti’s brain. Stashed in SVT’s garage is an Expedition nicknamed "Thunder.")

However, all of the above is consistent with expectations for the segment. New Expedition is a primo traveler, not a press-on "driver." Until you leave pavement behind.

There, among the elements, it’s a monster. I think we saw Bigfoot run for cover when the truck’s chassis electronics catapulted us from a mud bog and up incline so steep it filled the windshield with blue sky.

And a ditch that forced a Chevy Tahoe into shameful retreat proved no match for Expedition. With its ControlTrac 4WD and optional AdvancTrac ($795) that adds stability control, Expedition can advance if just one wheel finds meaningful traction.

Ford’s unashamedly open about its expectations for Expedition: best on the road, best in dirt and best in snow.

I answer: maybe, probably and definitely – as long as you don’t count Ski-Doo and Arctic Cat as passenger vehicles.