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Exploring Dubai: We Catch A Ride In Ford's 2011 Explorer Prototype

Rex Roywriter

Dubai: It's a high-speed collision of Medieval culture and the 21st century in a land of ancient sand and freshly-grown skyscrapers. Rising out of the desert, the regional commercial center seems to have as many high-rises as Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Cincinnati combined. Its location on a peninsula jutting into the peaceful Gulf of Oman also attracts tourists who come as much for the available booze as they do for the shoreline.

So why is Ford testing their all-new 2011 Explorer 7000 miles from Dearborn, Michigan? Glad you asked. The United Arab Emirates and surrounding countries annually consume about 10,000 Explorers pear year, making this a major export market for the Chicago-built nameplate. Second, the region has some peculiar characteristics that define multiple worst-case scenarios for vehicular engineers.

For example, when humidity in the 40- to 60-percent range combines with summertime temperatures that reach as high as 52° Celsius, the local heat index eclipses even California's Death Valley. During our early August visit it was a relatively balmy 48°C/119°F with 50-percent humidity. The combination made for an oven-like heat index of 191°F.

If your AC will blow cold in Dubai in August, it'll blow cold anywhere, anytime.

Beyond the heat, the sand surrounding Dubai is different than North American crushed quartz. The grains are much finer, something closer to refined sugar. Especially when it's hot, the foreign sand takes on a slippery, oily consistency that seriously taxes powertrains.

Ford invited AutomobileMag.com out to this particularly foreboding spot to see how their new Explorer -- a vehicle that they're marketing as an SUV -- handled the challenges. Given that the 2011 edition is a textbook crossover that shares much with the 2010 Taurus, we came loaded with a healthy bit of skepticism.

We rode to the testing grounds south of Dubai in an appropriate vehicle, a 2010 Raptor. This truck seemed perfect for the environs and the AC blew cold the entire ride into desert. With the exception of a wild camel or two, the vistas were dull, mostly obscured by dust and haze. The sky looked as featureless as the 360° horizon of sand.

Our destination was a public area used for picnicking and off-roading in cooler months. The things that pass for entertainment some places...

Within seconds of opening the Raptor's door, the heat caused sweat to explode from my pores. Aside from Ford's contingent, there was not another living soul in sight. Go figure. The emptiness makes this a good spot for testing pre-production vehicles. (I had heard rumors that Ford was also testing their new Ranger in the area, but never laid eyes on the vehicle.) Because our pre-production 2011 Explorer had been in the country since before the model's public unveiling, it was still wearing mild camouflage. One never knows when a spy photographer will pose as a camel shepherd or a cart sailor.

Climbing in the prototype Explorer, and to what I hoped would be working air conditioning, the sedan-like interior is a far cry from the rough-and-tumble attitude exuded by the 2010 model. Chief Engineer Don Ufford cautioned me about getting tangled in the sets of wires strung across the cabin. The lines were holding sets of temperature sensors monitoring AC performance.

Ufford and company were excited about their fuel-saving variable-displacement AC compressor and how it was performing. Ufford said, "We've had to upsize some components to meet our cooling targets here, and we'll probably use the same hardware in every market." In other words, since the new Explorer's AC blows cold in Dubai, it should do just fine in Dubuque.

While I was glad to be in a climate controlled space, I was more interested in whether the new Explorer could manage this terrain. Ufford attempted to oblige. He put the gearbox in Drive and we went absolutely nowhere. During the few minutes we were talking, the Explorer had literally sunk axle-deep into the sand. Ufford said, "This stuff is so slick that it moves out from under your tires while you're sitting, just like quicksand."

I clambered out for a look-see. The heat radiated up through my shoes. One of the engineers mentioned that his shoes delaminated the day before because the glue melted.

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.

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.