Makeover moves popular family vehicle in direction of crossover; better fuel mileage doesn’t compromise power, performance
The Ford Explorer was the darling of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) during the height of their popularity in the 1990s through the mid-2000s. However, by 2005, rising fuel prices, some bad publicity tied to the Firestone tire rollover debacle, and changing consumer tastes caused sales to head south. The executives at Ford knew it was time for a radical change.
So, for the 2011 model year, the vehicle that helped define the SUV segment has been completely reinvented. Now it's a bit kinder and gentler, to satisfy what Ford perceives as evolving customer expectations. Better road manners along with respectable off-road capability make it more like a crossover than an SUV.
The new Explorer looks terrific, inside and out. Thanks to its lower roofline and wider stance, it looks much sleeker than the outgoing model and has a lot more curb appeal than its top-of-class rivals, namely the Honda Pilot and the Toyota Highlander.
The Explorer's interior has far more soft-touch materials than its Japanese rivals, and mixes aluminum, wood and leather finishes in a very stylish way.
The new Explorer also competes against the Chevrolet Traverse, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9 and Dodge Durango.
The three-row Ford with V6 power delivers more than 20% better fuel economy than the 2010 model it replaces. With the 2.0-liter Eco- Boost I-4 engine, fuel economy improves by more than 30%, surpassing that of the 2010 Honda Pilot and 2010 Toyota Highlander V6.
The Explorer is available in three trim levels—base, XLT and Limited. Each has an array of standard features, with a selection of additional convenience and connectivity options so buyers can tailor a new Explorer to their individual needs.
Meanwhile, features such as My- Ford Touch driver-connect technology and SYNC integrated communications and entertainment system help keep a driver's eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
SLEEK LOOKS,YET FUEL-EFFICIENT
Ford engineers had a challenging task at hand when designing the new Explorer. It had to look modern and contemporary— inside and out—yet be instantly recognizable as an Explorer. It also needed to deliver the fuel economy that today's customers want, combined with the performance, capability and empowerment they expect from an SUV.
To achieve that, the body-on-frame layout with rear-wheel drive of the previous generation has been replaced with a variation of the Taurus unibody platform used in the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT.
To make it more of a crossover, the standard powertrain combines front-wheel drive with a 3.5-liter Ti-VCT V6 engine that delivers 290 horsepower and 255 foot-pounds of torque. Ti-VCT uses individual camshaft timing to improve power and emissions.
A new 6-speed automatic transmission with a wider range of ratios is intended to make up for eliminating the transfer case and its low range. It combines lowered initial gears for improved off-the-line acceleration and higher gearing for improved efficiency at lower engine rpm (revolutions per minute) when cruising.
NEW TERRAIN MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
According to Ford, the key to maintaining the Explorer's 4-wheel drive (4WD) capability is the automaker's optional new terrain-management system. Depending on how you look at it, replacing the traditional SUV transfer case configuration with the new system either simplifies or unnecessarily complicates maximizing 4WD capabilities.
Rather than using four-high, four-low and auto settings, terrain management is selectable according to road conditions. The four settings—available by shifting on the fl y—include normal, mud, sand and snow.
It is no coincidence that this 4WD system mimics some of the features found in various Land Rover models. Several engineers who worked on the new Explorer also worked for Land Rover when it was owned by Ford.
Each setting provides unique engine behavior, throttle tip-in, transmission shift scheduling and calibrations for traction and stability-control systems. Terrain management also includes hill-descent control, which provides engine braking for better control when descending a steep incline. A driver need only turn the console-mounted knob to the proper setting for snow, sand, mud or normal modes.
Critics contend that four programmed settings don't cover the many situations encountered off-road and you will have to read the owners' manual to figure out what is going on each time a setting is changed.
Explorer's electric power-assisted steering system, or EPAS, has variable rates of assistance based on speed, turn-in and direction. Just a brief test drive is all it takes to appreciate the solid, on-center feel and turning resistance. EPAS also provides a fuel-economy benefit by eliminating the parasitic drag of traditional hydraulic power-assist systems. EPAS also provides increased assistance at low speeds for parking ease.
In addition, EPAS enables the optional active park-assist technology. When activated, the system scans for a suitable spot, calculates the trajectory and steers the vehicle. The driver continues to control brake and throttle inputs, but the system steers the vehicle throughout the parking maneuver.
The Explorer's highway ride is particularly impressive. It is supple, yet there is no fl oat, and road impacts are muted over all but the harshest bumps. For a crossover, the Explorer is exceptionally quiet, rated at just 65 decibels at 70 miles per hour, a figure that puts to shame some very expensive luxury cars.
The new Explorer has a clean, modern and flexible interior package with plenty of storage capacity. However, it has less third-row and cargo room than some class rivals.
On the other hand, it features more head and shoulder room, three rows of flexible seating, and room for almost everything families want to take along these days. The fit and finish of interior details attest to Ford's emphasis on build quality.
The all-new Explorer earned top safety ratings with its stiff unibody structure and a suite of active and passive safety features and technologies, plus another Ford safety innovation— optional second-row inflatable rear seatbelts.
The vehicle also has what Ford calls "Curve Control," a more advanced stability system that applies the brakes if the electronics predict it is straying off the blacktop while cornering.
Explorer models with V6 power are rated to tow a maximum of 5,000 pounds versus the 7,115-pound towing capacity of the outgoing model.
To aid with hookup—especially when driving alone—a reverse camera with zoom-in functionality is available, allowing a driver to back up to the trailer on-center. The Explorer towing package includes trailer sway control to help minimize trailer sway. Trailer brake controller wiring is also included, as is a tow/haul mode.
Engaging tow/haul mode increases engine braking to help slow the vehicle and trailer when descending steep grades.