On a gray, Saturday morning recently, I found myself with serious yard chores and our 2012 Ford Explorer test vehicle parked in my driveway, a combination that should have worked well, but didn’t. It seems, U-Haul still harbors a long-standing grudge against any SUV bearing the “Explorer” name thanks to the massive Firestone tire recall.
After a relentless, snow-packed winter, my yard was still looking pretty shabby despite spring being well underway. I had previously cleared the debris of sticks that comes down every year and mowed the fresh grass. The main landscaping need was to pick up a load of bark mulch to spread on the dull-brown and slightly weedy flowerbeds.
I live in a semi-rural area with fairly large lots to accommodate adequate distances between septic systems and neighboring wells. So buying mulch by the bag is a never-ending proposition. It takes about three yards of the stuff to cover the area I’d need. And to add some urgency, we were hosting guests the next day.
The mulch lot charges $48 for delivery to my house, but they couldn’t get anything there until Tuesday. And the last time I bought mulch, it took my wife and me a month to spread it one bag at a time.
So, I thought, I have this handy Explorer in my driveway with a hitch receiver and trailer wiring on the back, rated to tow 5,000 pounds, moving three yards of mulch should be a cinch.
I called U-Haul to see about renting their largest, 6x12-foot open trailer to drag the mulch home. “Come on down! $29.95 for the day,” the friendly attendant said.
Eager to finish that day and save $18 by delivering the mulch myself, I trundled off to the local U-Haul lot. As the workers started to fill out the paperwork inside, their faces went ashen the second I said, “Explorer.”
“Sorry, we won’t let any equipment out behind an Explorer,” they said, and began putting away their pencils.
“Corporate policy, since the Firestone lawsuits,” they said. “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you.” (Ford was sued in a class-action lawsuit in 1998 over defective Firestone tires on early Ford Explorers, which led to several deadly rollover accidents. The lawsuit was eventually settled. But this new Explorer has zero in common with those early SUVs except the nameplate.)
When we called U-Haul corporate later to check on the policy, Joanne Fried, director of media and corporate relations confirmed the policy. “Every time we go to hire an attorney to defend a lawsuit, as soon as we say ‘Ford Explorer,’ they charge us more money.” She said the policy also applies to Jeep Wranglers, unless they have a hard-top installed.
As we waited on hold for a few minutes, the corporate recording recited: “If you need to tow, U-Haul is the only name you need to know, and the only place you need to go.” Apparently not if you drive a Ford Explorer. In that case, you need to go elsewhere.
I spent the next 45 minutes in the parking lot frantically researching and calling other places to rent trailers. No luck. In the end, I parked the Explorer and rented a truck from my local Home Depot: 3,000-pound carrying capacity and a high bed with drop sides would allow me to simply shovel the mulch off the truck, right into the flower beds. In less than three hours, I had spread the load and returned the truck. Total cost: $42.
In the end, Home Depot provided a fine solution to a problem I never knew I’d have. At that price and convenience, it further supports the notion that many consumers could simply rent a truck for rare chores, rather than drive one every day “just in case.”
The real lesson here is if you occasionally need to rent trailers, think twice about the new Ford Explorer. If you favor a Ford, the Edge or a Flex are excellent choices. But the Explorer, with all the performance, safety, and versatility offered by its modern, unibody design, won’t be welcomed at the local U-Haul franchise.