It’s easy to get caught up in the details with this new Explorer, as there are many little annoyances that detract from the core functions of this car. Unfortunately, even when you look at the big picture, the Explorer feels like less than what was promised.
We were told by Ford engineers not to fret that the SUV icon was switching from a rear-wheel-drive architecture to a front-wheel-drive platform; the all-wheel drive system, they promised, would still be sufficiently competent. Yet, under hard acceleration away from a stop, the Explorer continues to torque steers several seconds after the throttle has been matted. That should be plenty of time for the differential to allocate power to the rear wheels, but what the behavior reveals is that the system isn’t robust enough to send the appropriate amount of torque to the rear wheels.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, the Explorer feels absolutely cavernous and yet visibility isn’t very good. It seems that in an effort to compensate for the Explorer’s high beltline, the design team ordered up a tall roof. But all of that extra space over your head has little purpose.
Then there’s MyFord Touch. There are two primary sins, in my mind, with this interface. The first is the technical inferiority of the touch screen, which doesn’t respond to repeated taps if you’re raising the temperature or cycling through heated seat settings. Secondly is the fact that the screen is far too cluttered and the icons are too small. Ford engineers and designers need to strip out as many nonessential functions as possible from each primary screen.
The handling limits of the Explorer feel pretty low and still the ride isn’t all that soft. It’s certainly livable, but the majority of crossovers do it better. The engine, transmission, and steering, on the other hand, all perform dutifully.
Despite it’s shortcomings, Ford will certainly sell gobs of Explorers (I have already seen flocks of them all over Michigan), but given the recent excellence from cars like the Fiesta and Focus, this new crossovers comes of as underwhelming and even a bit disappointing.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
Like resourceful mess hall chefs, Ford engineers have been able to whip up surprisingly tasty dishes out of ingredients most would have trashed. Fresh sheetmetal and an available EcoBoost engine turned the dowdy old Ford Five Hundred into the much swankier Taurus. A facelift and a heavy dose of green technology rocketed the Fusion ahead of most of its peers. A re-skin, careful suspension tuning, and a new engine were all it took to keep the Mustang in the running with the all-new Chevy Camaro.
With this Explorer though, we’re seeing the limits of this strategy. The formerly body-on-frame vehicle can certifiably claim to be all new, but really, it’s more like “all-different.” The unibody platform, inherited from the old Five Hundred (and Volvos before that) is obviously better than the ancient body-on-frame architecture, but doesn’t feel as polished or as well thought out as many competitors, particularly the new Chrysler products.
Though I’m on the other end of the growth chart from Eric Tingwall (I’m 5’5″ and he’s 6’2″) I experienced the same discomfort in the cabin — it feels huge but affords poor outward visibility. The cabin also suffers from Ford’s newfound obsession with technology. Yes, we’ve all seen touch screens. Yes, they’re super cool. Now can we please have some knobs back?
The Explorer travels down the road nicely enough, with a soft ride that will please most buyers. Like the mechanically similar Ford Flex, though, it is far too slow in sending power to its rear-wheels. We’ve become accustomed to all-wheel-drive systems that work seamlessly and inspire confidence. This one seems to operate on an “Emergencies Only” algorithm that lets the front tires squeal pulling away from stoplights. I wonder if this programming is done for fuel economy reasons. It’s not worth it, in my opinion, as it cheapens the whole driving experience.
As others have noted, the Explorer will likely find many happy homes despite its flaws. And it is easy to appreciate why Ford thought it worthwhile to spin another product off this platform even as it (wisely) devotes serious resources to its excellent new small cars. Still, there are only so many times you can reheat the same old ingredients.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
My first stint behind the wheel of a 2011 Ford Explorer was also my first interaction with the new MyFord Touch system that has made many enemies in the media over the last few months. I find the two to be an odd mix of old and new. While the infotainment system may be as new as it gets, the Explorer name has been around forever and platform is long in the tooth. I immediately wished that Ford had left the infotainment alone and invested in a new platform.
As soon as I opened the Explorer’s door I felt like I was about to get into the old Ford Five Hundred. This platform’s signature high beltline and overall largeness weren’t very desirable when they came out and haven’t aged gracefully. I first experienced the Ford Five Hundred and its bulky platform-mates in the 2005 model year. In the same way that the Ford Five Hundred paled in comparison with the Chrysler 300 when they debuted, the Explorer now pales in comparison to the Dodge Durango. Yes, the Explorer will do a great job moving people and stuff in all sorts of weather and over some minor off-roading situations (like an unpaved driveway) but don’t expect to enjoy driving it.
I usually like cutting-edge infotainment systems because I find the convergence of cars and smart phones to be pretty intriguing. But Ford has gone too far by eliminating real knob or button controls for the HVAC system. I have never been this distracted driving another vehicle. In theory, an owner will be able to handle the vital functions through voice commands, but there’s no substitute for the immediacy of a manual, tactile input. MyFord Touch smacks of being technology for technology’s sake, and I think it inherently detracts from the driving experience.
The large-crossover segment is so full of great new vehicles that it’s hard to recommend the Explorer to anyone other than a die-hard Ford fan. Aside from the powertrain and modest handling improvements, there’s nothing in the Explorer package that significantly improves upon the Freestyle that debuted with this platform six years ago.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
Ditto to everything that Phil Floraday has written. I drove the Explorer over a weekend and was left underwhelmed. I’m dismayed by the size of the vehicle. When you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, there’s a huge expanse of instrument panel and dash, a relatively high cowl, and absolutely enormous A-pillars, with no triangular window cutout below the A-pillar to aid side vision. It feels bloated and unnecessarily oversize, just like a lot of Ford’s crossovers and SUVs.
I reviewed my notes and found lots of ho-hum adjectives for the V-6 powertrain, the chassis, and the ride-and-handling balance: “OK.” “Decent.” “Not bad.” “Pretty good.” You can see that this vehicle did very little to excite me. It did do a couple things to annoy me, though, most specifically the Ford MyTouch touch-screen interface for radio, navigation, and climate. From my notebook: “The MyTouch system has been infuriating all weekend. Very difficult to control. It’s very pretty, with lovely typography, and there’s a great stereo for blasting Lady Gaga, but overall it’s very frustrating to use.”
This is not a bad vehicle. But is it a class-leading vehicle, one that bristles with innovative engineering and space efficiency, oozes refinement, and offers a keen driving experience? No. Sadly, no.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
A few years back, I attended Ford’s 2009 model year product launch. At the time, we were aware that a new Explorer was in the works but didn’t have much information about it. During that event, we were promised that when the new Explorer finally came out, it would be a “groundbreaking” vehicle with “jaw-dropping” fuel economy.
After finally driving the new Explorer, however, the words “groundbreaking” and “jaw-dropping” aren’t the first adjectives that come to mind. That’s not to say that I don’t see the merits of the new version. The change from body-on-frame to unibody construction makes this Explorer much less trucklike than the previous model and consequently more friendly as an everyday driver. And, while the fuel economy (17 city/23 highway) isn’t extraordinary, it is equal to or slightly better than that of its competitors. Plus, when the Ecoboost four-cylinder becomes available, fuel economy should take a decided jump.
The Explorer feels big when you drive it, but despite its size it isn’t too unwieldy driving around town or pulling into and out of tight parking spaces (the rearview camera definitely helps). As for the MyFord Touch, I’d have to think long and hard before opting for it. It’s a little too high-tech for my taste, but for the gadget-inclined populace at large, it might be just the thing.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
The new Explorer rides very, very smoothly, much better than any Explorer of the past. That’s to be expected, though, when you compare a unibody vehicle to a body-on-frame design. This is a nice enough crossover vehicle, but I’m honestly having a hard time understanding why Ford is selling it alongside the Flex. Both seat seven passengers, both start at just under $30K, both receive nearly identical EPA fuel economy ratings, both are available with front- or all-wheel-drive, and both can be equipped to tow a respectable load. Obviously, Ford isn’t going to ditch the Explorer name, but it could have renamed the Flex as the Explorer. Whatever. I suppose it’s best to think of the polarizing Flex as a niche vehicle and leave it at that. Ford obviously isn’t the only carmaker selling very similar products alongside each other. I’d feel better about the whole thing if I liked the Explorer half as much as I like the impressive Flex, though.
The powertrain is unobtrusively adequate (the upcoming Ecoboost four-cylinder should help inject the Explorer with some energy and also separate it more from the Flex). The third row offers adequate space for me (I’m only five-foot-six), but the second-row accommodations aren’t the best, emphasizing the desirability of sliding second-row seats that offer increased legroom when there’s no one sitting in the way back. This test vehicle had lots of options (nav, leather, heated seats, and much more) but lacked a power liftgate, which would have been particularly handy. Also, the interior looks and feels inferior to those of Chrysler’s new Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango.
Count me as another of the many critics who don’t like MyFord Touch. Phil nailed it in his description. But I’ll also add that the interface is slow, and it’s way too easy to hit the wrong button and flub a command while you’re reaching for the temperature-change button, for instance. Fortunately, it’s standard only on Explorers of the Limited trim level. Opt out of MyFord Touch, dear consumer.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
The vast majority of Explorer owners use their SUVs simply as suburban family shuttles and care more about fuel economy than fording streams, so it makes sense for Ford to redesign the Explorer accordingly.
The 2011 Explorer is softer, more comfortable, and more fuel efficient. The problem is, although that’s something new for the Explorer nameplate, it isn’t breaking much ground for Ford. The idea of a car-based, midsize utility is old news for the company — anyone here remember the Freestyle, or the (different in name only) Taurus X? Has the Flex already faded into the recesses of our gray matter? Each of these not only share Ford’s D-segment platform with the Explorer, but offered nearly the same package and driving experience.
Those who love the Flex’s packaging yet loathe its wagon-esque form might find this the perfect solution. And better yet, the (AWD) Explorer bests the fuel economy of the Flex by 1 mpg both in the city and on the highway.
But the Explorer isn’t the radical reinvention Ford makes it out to be. Instead, it feels like an old idea quickly repurposed for a different nameplate, although that won’t necessarily matter to the majority of Explorer buyers.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
2011 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD
Base price (with destination): $33,995
Price as tested: $38,355
3.5-liter V-6 engine
6-speed automatic transmission
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
AdvanceTrac with roll stability control
Reverse sensing system
Capless fuel filler
Dual power heated mirrors
2nd row 60/40 split
3rd row 50/50 split
Tilt/telescoping steering column
Rear climate control
AM/FM single CD/MP3 player
Sirius satellite radio
Options on this vehicle:
Rapid Spec 202A — $2500
MyFord Touch technology
Auto-dimming rearview mirror
Premium audio with 8 speakers
Dual-zone automatic climate control
Voice activated navigation system — $795
Trailer tow package — $570
Blind spot monitoring system — $495
Key options not on vehicle:
Family entertainment system — $1995
Dual-pane sunroof — $1595
Power liftgate — $495
Inflatable rear seat belts — $195
17 / 23 / 19 mpg
Horsepower: 283 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 252 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm
Curb weight: 4752 lb
Wheels/tires: 18-inch aluminum wheels
245/60R18 Michelin Latitude Tour HP all-season tires
Redesigned for 2011