At different points during the several hours we spent in the desert, Ufford requested temperature updates from his laptop-monitoring engineer riding in the second row. Tracking the PTO's temp and the condition of the rear axle's clutch assembly was key to learning whether the revised AWD system was up to the task. It seemed to be.
Slogging through some particularly deep sand, Ufford asked if I could feel the Terrain Management electronics working. He explained that while the rear differential is an open unit, individual brake application makes the entire assembly work as if the unit is a limited-slip. All I could sense was that we weren't slowing down. All four wheels were throwing rooster tails of sand.
Slewing the Explorer's sizeable rear end one way and back the other, Ufford also pointed out how the re-calibrated electronic stability control allowed for some yaw in Sand Mode. Showing a thorough understanding of off-roading, running in Sand also changes the engine's response when the driver sharply lifts off the throttle. It cuts power gradually to help the vehicle float on the sand, helping prevent the Explorer from unintentionally bogging down. Unlike tamer AWD systems, Ford's operates at all speeds, as does the rollover stability control. (Terrain Management also provides specialized modes for snow, mud, and normal pavement with each feature optimized torque splits and powertrain management strategies.)
This desert experience provided a glimpse into what Ford has accomplished with their 2011 Explorer. While technically a crossover, it seems to deliver the kind of performance people traditionally expect from SUVs without the ride, handling, weight and fuel-economy hits that come with traditional body-on-frame vehicles.
Riding back to Ford's garage in Dubai's Free Trade Zone, I could discern a bit more about the 2011 Explorer package. The tired and beat up prototype still seemed solid, especially given the fact that it was missing the front-right fender liner. A particularly enthusiastic berm bash ripped the heavy plastic piece clean off. Quietness at low highway speeds was notable, but our on-road exposure to the Explorer was far too limited to develop any conclusive impressions. Those await some left-seat time, which should be coming toward the end of the year prior to the vehicle going on sale.