New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Ford Explorer

2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Ford Explorer. Some six million have been built since its introduction and four million still navigate our roads today. The peak year came in 2000—Ford sold some 445,000 back when fuel mileage was just another number, and bigger was always better. Recently, the Explorer has struggled in a market it used to dominate. In 2009, Ford sold just 52,000 units. For 2011, the Explorer has changed to better fit the current economic climate in hopes that buyers will come back.

Ford focused more on utility than sport with this redesign. The new Explorer is lower and wider than the outgoing model. The age-old, body-on-frame construction has given way to a unibody chassis derived from the Volvo S60; the same chassis is also found under the Flex and the Taurus. A standard third row seat comfortably accommodates passengers of all sizes, not just kids, and there is massive headroom in all three rows. And a new terrain management system allows drivers to rotate a knob with a flick of the wrist to adjust from mud, snow, sand, and normal driving modes—technology lifted from the Land Rover models. Each setting adjusts transmission shift points and works in tandem with the stability program to ensure better traction in whatever scenario you’re driving in, but there is no low range. There is, however, hill descent control, brought over from the SVT Raptor program.

The biggest surprise is under the hood. Say goodbye to the brawny, gas-guzzling V-8 engine, as the Explorer now offers two very capable, fuel-efficient engines: a 3.5-liter V-6 and a 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder. The V-6 is quite suitable; its peak horsepower of 290 is only 2 hp shy of the outgoing V-8, yet it achieves 25 percent better fuel economy (it’s rated at 25 mpg on the highway). The V-6 has a 5000-pound towing capacity, and Ford engineers also integrated a trailer sway control system and a rearview camera with a zoom feature, a fabulous idea. The V-6 is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, and the sixth gear is purely an overdrive feature; even the slightest pressure on the gas pedal immediately results in the transmission dropping a gear or two to accelerate.

We were only able to sample the V-6; the 2.0-liter EcoBoost is a later arrival, it’s due to go on sale mid-2011 as a 2012 model and will only be offered with front-wheel drive. EcoBoost pricing has not been released.

From the driver’s seat, there is a huge expanse of dashboard and windshield leading to a lot of hood, but the corners of the vehicle drop off. Sightlines are pretty good out front but there is a large blind spot at the C-pillar. The interior is a big upgrade over the old Explorer. The optional Sony sound system does pretty much everything you could imagine and features 390 watts, twelve speakers, an eight-inch subwoofer, and two USB ports. To top it off, it’s finished in piano black which looks very classy. But the touch buttons take some getting used to. Of course, streaming your music is easy with the Sync voice-activated system.

On the road this new Explorer handles like none before it, with a supple ride, very good body control, and predictable dynamics. The ride is well mannered for a 4700-pound vehicle, and the new chassis prevents the dreaded bobble-head syndrome for occupants. But the electronically assisted power steering feels a bit too artificial. Ford’s new Curve Control feature measures steering input, vehicle speed, and yaw angle to apply brakes to numerous corners of the car to slow it down, whereas the electronic stability program applies the brake to one wheel at a time. We briefly encountered the Curve Control feature on our drive loop—not on purpose—and it did its job just fine.

Customers can choose from three trim levels: base model, XLT, and Limited. Pricing starts at $28,995 for base model, $31,995, and $37,995 for XLT and Limited respectively. Front-wheel drive is standard on all trim levels, four-wheel drive is a $2000 option.

The 2011 Ford Explorer is a well-executed version of the family crossover. Its main competitors are the Chevy Traverse, Toyota Highlander, and Honda Pilot, and the Ford is at or near the top in terms of on-road behavior and interior refinement. As far as off-roading goes, Ford seems to be conceding that territory to the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Toyota 4Runner.

That makes sense for Ford because research has shown on-road is where 99 percent of Explorer owners drive. After twenty years in the market, 96 percent of Americans know what an Explorer is; now it’s just a matter of getting people back into them. But even if Americans don’t embrace the new version, all is not lost, as the new Explorer will be exported from Chicago to 90 countries worldwide.