Before the Raptor could position itself for a tow, Ufford gently rocked the big crossover out of its depression. Swinging around to pick me back up Ufford said, "First rule about driving in this desert, never park nose uphill." Pointing out that he had set the Explorer's AWD Terrain Management in Sand Mode, the engineer nailed the throttle and shot the vehicle over the edge of an enormous sand bowl.
This is not what I expected. Crossovers had stranded me twice before, both times on beaches, so I had good reason to wonder what Ufford was thinking. The Raptor's tow strap certainly wouldn't reach two stories down to where we were headed.
The Explorer roared into the bowl across the flattish bottom and up the opposite side. Ufford wasn't manually shifting or doing anything special, but the revs on the 3.5-liter V-6 were staying up in the power band. Even as the engineer breathed off the throttle to direct the seven-passenger crossover around the inner rim, the engine held is revs and the gearbox didn't upshift. Ufford had done this before. The locals call it dune surfing. Back on the gas, Ufford kept the nose canted skyward as the vehicle tracked horizontally around the bowl's upper edge.
Not a bad first impression.
So what enables the new Explorer to act more like an SUV than a crossover? Ufford rattled off a host of upgrades that make the Explorer capable of doing what its crossover cousins the Flex and Lincoln MKT cannot. It all starts with chassis upgrades to Ford's D-platform, the architecture that also underpins the Taurus and Lincoln MKS. Major components such as sub-frames and lower control arms are beefier, as are the steering gear and knuckles. The entire suspension system is also retuned so springs, shocks and jounce bumpers are unique to the 2011 Explorer.
More importantly, the Explorer's version of Ford's AWD system is upgraded to withstand sustained off-road running. Engineers added an independent cooling circuit to the power take off (PTO), the transmission component that sends power to the rear axle. In off-road conditions, the continuous flow of torque generates heat that would damage an uncooled PTO. Blasting through the desert on tires deflated to 15 psi, what we were doing was clearly heavy-duty.