Spied: 2011 Ford Explorer Mule Protoype

Although Ford plans to launch its all-new 2011 Explorer by the end of 2010, the automaker is still running mule prototypes to help gain as much real-world testing as possible.

The awkward styling of this prototype isn’t a sign of what the finished product will look like, but it does indicate what lies beneath the skin. In a large break from tradition, the Explorer will abandon body-on-frame construction in favor of a unibody structure. Reports suggest the new ‘ute will ride upon Ford’s D4 architecture, which underpins the likes of the Ford Flex and Taurus X (parts of both appear in this mule), and is similar to the D3 platform used in both the Taurus and Lincoln MKS sedans.

If you want a good look at the new Explorer’s exterior form, we suggest you take a look at the Explorer America concept that debuted at the 2008 Detroit auto show. Like the show car, the new Explorer will also make use of a turbocharged engine -- in this case, the new 2.0-liter “EcoBoost” turbo four-cylinder introduced earlier this year with the 2012 Focus. The engine will be mated with a six-speed transmission (possibly Ford’s new dual-clutch gearbox), and will reportedly yield a 25-percent improvement in fuel economy.

Thanks to a $180 million expansion, Ford will produce the new Explorer in its assembly plant outside Chicago, Illinois, that also builds the Taurus and MKS. Expect more details on the SUV to emerge later this year.

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