First Look: 2011 Ford Explorer

Once the poster child of the traditional-SUV segment, the Ford Explorer is now a front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder, unibody crossover — at least in base trim. It may be a strange and dramatic departure from the Explorer of yesteryear, but Ford execs are confident the new strategy can halt the icon’s cliff dive from 445,157 sales in 2000 to 31,864 through the first six months of 2010. Fuel economy, they say, is the reason the segment has stalled. That explains the four-cylinder base engine, a 2.0-liter turbocharged unit generating 237 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque. The numbers aren’t official yet, but a 30 percent increase in fuel economy over last year’s V-6 is expected, which should yield 18 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

Opting for all-wheel-drive requires stepping up to the 3.5-liter V-6, which makes 290 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy for that powerplant should come in at 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. Both engines use a six-speed automatic transmission. There is no V-8, but we anticipate a turbocharged V-6 with up to 400 hp will eventually arrive.

Exploring new segments
Ford is making no attempt to hide the fact that the new Explorer is a totally different type of vehicle. This fresh Explorer, they say, does everything buyers have demanded from the current model while improving on comfort and fuel economy. “We kind of convinced ourselves that there were two kinds of utility vehicles: body-on-frames and crossovers,” said Jim Farley, group vice president of global marketing, sales, and service. “But frankly, a lot of customers don’t see it like that. People just want to tow, they want to go off-road, they want to do things they sometimes didn’t plan to do.”

During the reveal, executives and engineers used the word “capability” almost as often as they did “Explorer,” yet the smaller engines and a fuel-economy focus come with undeniable compromises. Maximum towing capacity drops from 7115 pounds to 5000 pounds while the four-cylinder tops out at 2000 pounds of towing. The low-range transfer case follows the V-8 out the door, but there is a new terrain management system — essentially adaptive throttle, torque bias, and stability and traction control — with settings for snow, mud, sand, and pavement, along with hill-descent control. Compared to the outgoing truck, the Explorer is 5.4 inches wider and 3.7 inches longer, but is 0.9 inches lower, while maintaining about 8 inches of ground clearance. Despite the size increase, weight has been reduced (by an unspecified amount) with the switch to unibody construction.

A brand-new look
In addition to departing from the traditional SUV formula, Ford has also left behind the classic boxy style of the Explorer. Contrary to Ford’s claims, we don’t see a drop of influence from previous Explorers in the new truck’s styling. With the rest of the pillars blacked out to blend in with the glass, the thick, slanted, body-color C-pillar creates a cantilevered look for the roof. Darkened rocker panels that wrap around the wheel wells visually lift the Explorer while reducing the height of the body sides. The grille draws inspiration from the Taurus and will come in either a brushed-aluminum look or body color. The shapes and details are all attractive, but taken as a whole, the Explorer’s design seems rather unharmonious. Base models ride on 17-inch steel wheels with covers while the XLT trim uses aluminum 18-inch wheels and Limited models come with 20-inch wheels. A roof rack is standard on all Explorers.

An upscale, feature-packed interior
Ford has been aiming for Audi-like levels of fit and finish on its interiors for a while now, but the Explorer is the first product where such a claim has actual credence. Soft-touch materials on the dash provide for tight fits with adjacent panels while details like real metal speaker grilles add a premium finish. The Explorer will be the third Ford product (following the Edge and the Lincoln MKX) to offer the company’s new touch-screen infotainment system. Called MyFord Touch, it integrates navigation, audio, climate, and phone functions into an eight-inch touch screen while reducing the number of physical controls. The instrument cluster (when equipped with MyFord Touch) features two small LCD screens flanking an analog speedometer. The left screen shows vehicle information while the right display accesses limited information from the center screen.

Seating for seven is standard with an option for center bucket seats that reduce capacity to six passengers. Options include adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning, parallel parking assist, and a power folding third-row seat. A new active safety feature called curve control is standard. It decelerates the vehicle when understeer is about to send you off the cloverleaf exit ramp. With the Explorer, Ford is also the first manufacturer to offer inflatable rear seatbelts. Like airbags, the optional seatbelts (for the outboard seats of the second row) reduce trauma be spreading impact forces over a larger area. In this case, Ford says the inflatable belts create a surface area that’s five times larger than the typical seat belt. The bags are in the shoulder belt while the inflator is in the buckle.

The Explorer lives another day
The demise of SUVs like the Dodge Durango and Chevy Trailblazer is proof enough that the Explorer’s reinvention is critical to survival. However, Ford’s own lineup provides enough competition to call the Blue Oval’s product strategy into question. Along with the Flex, the company now has two large crossovers that seat seven and are priced around $30,000. We’ll see how buyers perceive the Explorer’s role once it arrives in dealerships toward the end of 2010.

Buying Guide
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17 City / 25 Hwy

Cargo (Std/Max):

NA / 80.7 cu. ft.