MALIBU, Calif. — At this event, a combined media launch for the 2018 Ford Mustang and Expedition, I came in expecting the handling story to be Mustang.
While this is not intended to disparage the new Mustang’s handling — which you’ll read about next week — the real surprise was Expedition.
We drove from Marina del Rey to Malibu in a 2.3-litre Ecoboost Mustang, carving up Mulholland Drive, Kanan Dume Road and Topanga Canyon Drive. Then we switched into the Expedition on our arrival at Calamigos Ranch Resort, and did many of the same roads all over again.
If you’re thinking those roads are twisty, you don’t know the half of it.
It was shocking how well it handled. It was no Mustang, but it certainly didn’t feel like an eight-passenger, three-row, full-size SUV. The limiting factor won’t be the truck’s capability, it will be the ability of your passengers to withstand the spirited driving.
It’s fitting that our hotel is also the home of Biggest Loser Resort, patterned after the reality-TV show on weight loss.
Expedition went on a diet of aluminum and lost 150 kilograms, despite adding several new features — including a 10-speed transmission, panoramic sun roof, power third-row folding seats and a bunch more legroom, even in the third row.
The result is an SUV that feels and drives much smaller than it is. A tight turning ratio, a rack-mounted electric assist motor for the power steering and independent rear suspension make Expedition the ride and handling surprise of the year.
This is the first complete, blank-slate redesign for Ford’s big SUV in 21 years. That’s right: Bill Clinton was waiting to be sworn in as U.S. president, then-prime minister Jean Chretien was wrestling anti-poverty protesters in Gatineau, Que., and IBM’s Deep Blue first beat chess champ Garry Kasparov the last time Ford cracked the books on an all-new Expedition.
For 2018, Expedition gains a bunch of features and upgrades to its engine: only one engine is offered throughout the lineup, a 3.5-litre Ecoboost V-6. The engine delivers two sets of specifications, however. For models under Platinum, it increases horsepower by 10 to 375 and increases torque by 70 lb-ft to 470 lb-ft. For Platinum models, it offers 400 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque.
Chief engineer Todd Hoevener said the difference in engines is simply in the tuning. The Platinum doesn’t generate added power through higher-octane fuel, and doesn’t require higher-octane fuel to achieve those numbers.
In either case, the engine is mated, as stated, to a 10-speed automatic transmission and, in Canada, comes only with all-wheel drive.
The 10-speed works particularly well, and is a technological marvel. How does Ford fit 10 gears into an automatic transmission bell housing not much larger than most six-speeds? The answer is, they don’t.
By combining gear ratios, Ford gets the equivalent of 10 speeds out of four gears. Speeds one through six are greater than 1:1 ratios, seventh speed is 1:1 and eight, nine and 10 are overdrive. The 10 speeds allow first gear to be lower than first gear in six-speed transmissions and 10th is higher than sixth gear. All the in-between speeds improve efficiency by more closely matching engine speed to the prevailing conditions.
The transmission was a highlight of our towing demonstration, though keep in mind carmakers only offer comparisons they expect to win. We were towing two horse trailers, each weighted down to 5,500 pounds. The loop involved a relatively windy highway, downhill and up. First, we drove Tahoe. Then Expedition.
While both vehicles handled the trailer well on the downhill section, it was on the uphill section the Expedition shone. Under acceleration, and even when cruising uphill, the Tahoe seemed to be really working hard. The Expedition pulled just as hard as Tahoe’s small-block V-8, but kept the engine speed at a lower, less-noisy level. The 10-speed vs. Tahoe’s six-speed accounted for that.
Off-road, Expedition was also a surprise: its tight turning radius meant there was only one turn requiring a three-point turn, and the automatic all-wheel-drive system reacted to spin quickly enough we never lost momentum on some steep uphill climbs. As with other Ford SUVs, Expedition features terrain management, which tailors a variety of vehicle parameters to conditions, from snow to mud, and ruts to sand and rock.
Expedition is also available in a longer version, called Expedition Max.
Ford has seen the last decade of full-size SUV sales go to Chevy Tahoe, which has owned the segment. The 2018 Expedition is Ford’s full-frontal assault on taking back some, if not all, of that dominance.
The handling is one way to take back that share but, also, some of the features that are standard are well thought out. For example, with the rear hatch split to open both the glass and the entire hatch, Ford added a shelf that you can raise off the cargo floor, so if you do have smaller items to place through the glass, you don’t need to reach the floor.
That floor also includes a cargo protector, which is basically a raised sill that keeps anything loose from rolling onto the ground. That third row of seats, of course, has headrests. But let’s say you drop off the hockey team and notice the headrests are still up, and you want them down for visibility. There’s a switch on the dash that will lower them for you.
Watch your back, Tahoe. Ford’s turned the table with Expedition.