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.

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Well..I was hoping for a turbo V6 instead of a turbo4 but I'll assume that arrives in 2012 along with a Sport package a la the Edge?! I'm not sure about Curve Control since that sounds like a nanny that would severely inhibit exuberant corning. But I'd put it in my garage!

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