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Story by Jack Baruth

In 1958, David Ogilvy created perhaps the most famous advertisement in history. Titled, “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”, it made his reputation and permanently established Rolls-Royce’s reputation in the American consciousness. It featured nineteen technical points of interest, the last of which is reproduced below:

#19. The Bentley is made by Rolls-Royce. Except for the radiators, they are identical motor cars, manufactured by the same engineers in the same works. The Bentley costs $300 less, because its radiator is simpler to make. People who feel diffident about driving a Rolls-Royce can buy a Bentley.

So now we have before us the Ford Expedition King Ranch. It’s fifty thousand dollars and offers a set of luxury features virtually identical to the flashier, more expensive, urban-hip-hop-video-darling Lincoln Navigator. What’s the point of offering an Expedition with a Navigator’s level of bling? Is it the return of fake luxury? Who would buy a Ford when they could buy a Lincoln? Well, perhaps Mr. Ogilvy hit the nail on the head with his 1958 advertisement. People who feel diffident – that is, hesitant or concerned – about being seen in a Navigator can buy a King Ranch.

As usual, Ford has come up with a powerfully evocative name for this subtly elegant monster. If there is a place on the map which is spiritually farthest away from the bass-thumping downtown Detroit streets where Kwame Kilpatrick famously twirled the wood-rim steering wheel of his tinted-out Navigator, it must be the massive King Ranch, a four-parcel legend which dates back more than a hundred and fifty years and covers more ground than Rhode Island. The flying-W brand of the ranch decorates the Expedition’s characterful dark brown leather seats and center console. It’s a place, and a sentiment, very much in tune with Ford’s heartland image.

We don’t believe in “suspenseful” reviews, so there’s no harm in confessing that we came to admire – even love – this big-hearted truck over the course of our seven-day test. We’re so charmed that we’ve asked to get another one in “EL” specification before the end of the year, and at least one member of our staff has been seen building one for himself on Ford’s website. After a few days spent driving the all-new GMC Yukon earlier this year, we didn’t think that Ford’s revised-and-more-than-full-sized SUV would measure up, but the truth of the matter is that the Ford blows the new GMC and Chevrolet away, from the baroque majesty of its enormous angled grille to the admirable engineering of its independent rear suspension. But enough of this. We came to tow.

#1. What’s it cost, and why? Our tester was $50,800 from a base price of $42,865. Major cost options included the in-dash navigation ($1,995), power running boards ($995), a moonroof ($995), the Heavy Duty Trailer Package ($395), and self-leveling rear suspension ($485).

#2. What did we pull, and how well did it do? We towed our 2004 Boxster S “550 Spyder Edition” from Columbus, OH to Wampum, PA for a coaching session with Speed Secrets author Ross Bentley. From there we went to the TrackDAZE two-day session at Autobahn Country Club, and then back to Columbus. Total trip was nearly twelve hundred miles. We used our Quality Trailers 18″ steel-deck trailer for a total towed weight of around 4900 pounds, plus another 260 pounds or so of wheels, tires, and equipment in the rear compartment. As a tow rig, the standard-length Expedition falls some way short of the F-250 variants we’ve recently tested. It’s a little nervous down hills, and it is susceptible to crosswinds. The phrase most often heard while driving our F-250 testers – “you can’t feel the trailer” – does not apply here. We also miss Ford’s outstanding “Tow Command” integrated brake controller, which removes the drama from steep descents and quick stops. During those quick stops, the Expedition is far more likely to slip into ABS than the Super Duty models, perhaps due to the relatively short wheelbase and low weight. Did you ever think you would hear the phrase “low weight” used in reference to an Expedition? It’s all relative, you know. The comfortable flat-ground cruising speed of the King Ranch isn’t much more than 70-75 mph, which is a stark contrast to the Triton V-10 Crew Cab which was utterly cheerful at eighty-five-plus. Still, compared to the Toyota Land Cruiser we used to pull to the last TrackDAZE event, the Expedition was flawless. A heavy rainstorm in northern Indiana during our trip forced most of the traffic on I-80 to the shoulder, but our Ford kept pulling straight and true. We think the 131-inch “EL” will be significantly more stable on the road, so unless you need to put your King Ranch in the garage, it’s worth considering. For racers who have yet to step up to a 24-foot enclosed trailer, this is an appropriately capable vehicle; those of you who have two cars or heavy equipment should walk past the Expeditions on your local Ford dealer’s lot and head directly for the line of Super Duty trucks.

The winner of our little-known “John Mayer Look-Alike Contest”, Focus driver and track rat Jeff Stutler, relaxes in the tanned leather of the King Ranch’s interior.

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#3. Does it have enough motor? Kind of. The “mod motor” V-8s have traditionally been the Achilles’ heel of Ford trucks, never delivering as much power as the competition while guzzling more fuel in the process. Sure, they’re technically more advanced than the GM LSx engines or Chrysler HEMI mills, but in practice they don’t cut the mustard. The six-speed automatic stays busy on all but the flattest roads, tirelessly extracting the most the 5.4 has to offer. Still, it was never dangerously slow, and it’s a relatively civilized engine on long trips. What this truck really needs is the 6.8L V-10, and now that the Excursion is no longer a part of Ford’s market plan, there’s no reason not to offer it.

#4. It is “enough truck” for a club racer? With the right trailer, yes. There’s no better way to get a crew of four to the races – the dual rows of captain’s chairs in our test truck were comfy and spacious. The three-zone climate control keeps the hothead behind the steering wheel cool while the accompanying umbrella girls can turn the heat up to match their outfits. (Note: in club racing, there are no umbrella girls, regardless of what NASA says on their website.) Behind those seats, there’s enough room for eight wheel/tire sets and some basic tools – but anything more than that, and you’re going to be looking at putting a tire rack on your trailer. It also feels like a bit of a desecration putting greasy quick-lift jacks in the King’s carefully-trimmed interior. The extended-length model may prove to be a better mousetrap for racers, so we’re going to test one and report back.

There’s a lot of room in there, and a nifty power tailgate to shove it all in. Be prepared for your $380 electric impact wrench to fall out of the back when you activate the power tailgate, pretty much Every. Single. Time.

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#5. What was the fuel economy? Through the relatively flat Midwest, we averaged 13.1 miles per gallon. It’ll cost you a hundred bucks to fill the tank, but the payoff is enough range to cover more than four hundred miles. Again, the 5.4 V-8 fails to impress much, particularly in relation to the Chrysler HEMI which is reputed by its owners to pull a steady 15mpg with a heavier load. On the other hand, thirteen miles per gallon with a street car in tow isn’t too bad.

#6. How’s passenger comfort? It’s just plain awesome, thanks. Ford took a radical step with the Expedition by introducing independent rear suspension, but it’s a risk which paid off in spades. In all conditions, on all roads, the King Ranch outshines the Yukon/Suburban crowd with a reduction in “head toss” side-to-side motion. On the open road, it’s like driving a Town Car. Scratch that. It’s better than a Town Car, and the excellence of the heated/cooled front seats provides the icing on the cake. For a twelve-hundred-mile trip in three days with hours of track time and virtually no sleep, the big Ford was a nearly perfect mount – and if it doesn’t pull quite like a heavy-duty truck, it rides far, far better. It’s outside the scope of our test to talk about how comfort is without a trailer, but it speaks volumes that this was the first of our test Fords to be in demand when there was nothing attached to the back bumper. This is simply a great truck in which to travel.

The best seat in the house, but the others aren’t bad either.

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#7. What options do I need? The heavy-duty trailer tow package is a must, and the self-leveling rear suspension is best-in-class. We’re also partial to the power-operated running boards; they look sharp while saving your smaller crew members a lot of climb-in misery. It’s also hard to understand why Ford won’t make Tow Command an option here; there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work and it would provide a lot of reassurance during long, tiring pulls.

Everybody loves the running boards, even tall fellows like Jeff.

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And… step!

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#8. What options should I avoid? The navigation system is $1,995 and it simply isn’t very good. The rear-view system isn’t much use if you are always towing. Save your money and buy the power liftgate, which works as advertised and can save some hassle during a post-race pack-up.

#9. Where does this stand compared to the competition? The Expedition only has one serious competitor, the GM Yukon/Tahoe. From where we stand, the Ford’s a better truck, even before its non-trivial price advantage is considered. We’d also take a King Ranch over the platform-twin Lincoln Navigator, as people tend to smile at a big Ford while glaring at the blingmobile Lincoln.

If you can find a bigger badge, buy it.

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#10. What’s the overall picture? Let’s talk about the Mesozoic Era for a moment, shall we? Over the course of over a hundred million years, Nature relentlessly perfected the concept of the carnivorous dinosaur, adding size, speed, power, and cunning. If the original Explorer was an Allosaurus – a mid-sized meat-eater which found a niche in the dino-marketplace despite being a rather crude effort – and the last Expedition was a Daspletosaurus – the same concept scaled up a few notches – this is a full-fledged Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s hard to imagine the SUV getting any larger, more luxurious, or just plain better than this. And just as an asteroid appears to have put a rather nasty end to the big Rex, the imminent arrival of five-dollar gasoline is likely to write the final chapter in the Expedition’s story. It’s easy to criticize the idea of a three-ton “family vehicle” which offers one-third the fuel efficiency of a Focus while virtually blotting out the sun with its width and height. As the marketplace continues to change, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see Ford, or any other automaker, work this hard again at making such a beast. The Expedition is likely to become very irrelevant, very soon…

…so you’d better get one while you can. Seriously. Of all the vehicles we’ve tested, very few have struck such a responsive chord in our hearts. The King Ranch tows, hauls, takes the family to dinner, cuts through bad weather with unerring accuracy, rides like a 7-Series, and generally displays a purity of purpose which is both rare and satisfying. We’d like to own one, and if you drove one, you would as well, even if you’re a tofu-eating Algore-clone. It’s that convincing. It would be more so with a V-10 and Tow Command, but let’s not quibble here. This is a hell of a truck, and for the lucky people wealthy enough to purchase and fuel it, it will provide superlative service. Like T. Rex, it’s frightening and majestic even as we question its fitness to survive the future. Let’s hope Ford has something up its sleeve, whether it’s EcoBoost or a top-notch hybrid drive, to save it from extinction.

After a great weekend at Autobahn, “Race Control” Jon Felton (of GET FAST) relaxes with TrackDAZE founders Jeremy Jens and Eric Campbell. What a shame they’ll have to drive home in that crapwagon Tundra… but not everybody gets to roll a King Ranch.

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Jack Baruth

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