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KICKING BACK

KICKING BACK

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This is the story of a famous -- some say, infamous -- Explorer. In the course of more than a decade and of innumerable voyages, this Explorer went more places, with more apparent success and resultant reknown, both in North and South America as well as abroad, than any supposed peer -- only to end up being charged with complicity in countless cases of death and maiming of the innocent. What Explorer is this? And what does all this have to do with me? Well, it ain't Hernando Cortez or Vasco de Gama, of course. It's the Ford Explorer -- as the giveaway capital 'E' would indicate (even if the transparently hokey rhetoric, a la Paul Harvey, hadn't). And I just became the owner of one -- a used '99 2-door Sport model colored a dark gunmetal blue and boasting low mileage. It's mine courtesy of a trade-in whereby I chose to dispose of two vehicles -- a '94 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, which had given almost 100,000 miles of faithful, mostly trouble-free service; and a '97 Kia Sephia, against which I had no strong complaints, other than that I was woefully upside down with it (i.e., owed considerably more than its book value) and that it possessed no holders for drinks and no place to put them. My acquisition of the car -- or "truck," as it's sometimes called in the trade press; or 'SUV,' (for "sport utility vehicle"), as it and its competitors are known generically -- comes at a time when the Explorer is widely considered complicit with its former tire supplier, Firestone, in a number of disturbing incidents in which tires blew out and the vehicle rolled over, with more resultant fatalities and serious injuries than could easily be ignored. Venezuela has just banned the sale of the Explorer. The Ford Motor Company, for its part, has just banished Firestone tires from all of its S.U.V.'s -- a follow-up to a partial purging of selected tire models last year and a move which Firestone has countered by refusing to supply tires for any Ford Motor Co. vehicle any longer. The finger-pointing and/or scapegoating will eventually be resolved both in Congressional hearings and in the settlement of judicial proceedings, one of which asks the Ford Motor Co. to recall all Explorer models (except for the 2002 version) and to compensate all owners of the vehicle accordingly. For obvious reasons, I am keenly interested in the outcome of this latter suit. In the meantime, I should hasten to say that I grant to the American-made vehicle the same presumption of innocence taken for granted in courtroom situations by its native-born drivers. I mean, lookit, if it's good enough for O.J. it's good enough for my S.U.V. So far, the car drives well and I love its interior appointments, a lush CD/cassette sound system, in particular. As for its bad rap, let me offer this extenuation, the result of a tire-kicking epiphany. When I bought my Explorer, it still had a set of its original Firestone Wilderness A/T (the letters standing, presumably, for all-terrain) tires on it. Although these appeared to be unusually stout, even handsomely so, I would end up replacing them with Goodyear equivalents -- gratis, thanks to the recent emergency edict from Ford president Jacques Nasser. But at some point the irony of the name "Wilderness A/T" occurred to me. Nobody, but nobody, buys an Explorer (or a Jeep Cherokee or a Honda Passport or any other of the S.U.V. species) with the intent of roaming the "wilderness." Bottom line: the only dangerous terrain they are ever asked to negotiate is that of the commuter lane -- and, not to minimize the problem, it was in such places that the late, unlamented Wilderness tires and the Explorer itself first became suspect. Let's face it: Your average S.U.V. driver is macho in the same way that wearers of Tommy Hilfiger blue jeans are: i.e., cosmetically so. Simply put, the true distinction of S.U.V's is their extra height, which lets you see over and around all those other vehicles on the road with you. This higher-than-usual center of gravity, together with the vehicle's relatively narrow wheelbase, is what constitutes the potential rollover problem, of course -- one aggravated by the blowout specter. It thereby also mandates more than the usual watchfulness on the part of the driver. One is challenged to be more or less constantly checking such variables as the condition and air pressure of tires and the general upkeep of the vehicle's motor and drive train. All of that is to the good, and it partly compensates for the virtual disappearance, in our time, of the manual stick drive and other appurtenances that once coaxed drivers into actual attentive communion with their own and others' vehicles and with the open road. For some years, the tendency has been for motorists to become mere passive passengers in their own vehicles. The advent of the S.U.V. has served to amend that neglect and to force people to become more directly involved with the process of driving. More than arguably, this recent Explorer scare has been a little more of an incentive than was called for. The irony is that driving an S.U.V. has become a true adventure -- in ways beyond all the pretense and the packaging of the advertising fraternity. In the long run, that may lead the auto barons to make sweeping changes in their lines. In the short run, it behooves us S.U.V. owners to look for the silver lining -- and, in the process, to make sure that we look after those brake linings, too. (Jackson Baker KICKS BACK whenever the mood strikes on whatever topic interests him. In other words, watch this space.)

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