At the peak of the late-1990s sport utility craze, Ford sold almost half a million Explorers. But as car-based "crossovers" have stolen share from truck-based SUVs, that number has fallen.
Still, the Explorer remains a vitally important vehicle for Ford, which says that 95 percent of all car buyers recognize the name.
So the all-new 2011 Ford Explorer has a tough task: It must retain all the "authenticity" and capability of a rugged truck-based SUV--or, as Ford puts it, it must be a "no-compromise SUV" that offers families a "sense of adventure" even if they only use it around the suburbs.
But at the same time, it has to fix the two problems that drive buyers away from SUVs toward crossovers: lousy fuel economy, and truck-like ride and handling. Ford promises that the new model is "30 percent more fuel efficient" than the old one, and its ride and handling should benefit from 10 years of development and underpinnings derived from the Taurus sedan and Flex crossover.
Still, Ford plays up its toughness, saying it must meet the needs of those 20 percent of Explorer owners who take the vehicle off paved roads. So the badge on the back says "4WD" rather than "AWD," underscoring the butch qualities of the all-wheel-drive system, and it has 7.9 inches of ground clearance.
The 2011 Explorer offers one of several Ford firsts, a Terrain Management System similar to the one on the much pricier Land-Rover LR4. It lets the driver select one of four settings to identify the road surface--normal, sand, mud and ruts, or snow mode--as well as offering Hill Descent control that requires the driver only to steer while the car descends at a safe pace.
Launched today with a series of events in major cities--New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas among them--the 2011 Ford Explorer will launch this November.
At the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, Ford showed an Explorer America concept that was meant to point the way toward redefining the Explorer for the new age.
To our eyes, though, the production 2011 Explorer is notably softer and more carlike than the concept. Its 2010 predecessor was clearly a truck: slab-sided, high-riding, and narrow for its height.
The new 2011 model is tall--opening the door reveals a stepover higher than you might imagine from looking at it--but wide enough where it has obviously different proportions. It is, in fact, fully 5 inches wider than its predecessor, though its high stance clearly indicates its all-wheel-drive roots.
2011 Ford ExplorerEnlarge Photo
Proportions aside, though, the 2011 Ford Explorer is a substantial seven-seat people-and-stuff hauler, and it looks it. The pillar behind the rear doors, for instance, remains body color--a key identifier for the model. Overall, we think the new Explorer looks like a halfway blend of the Explorer America concept and the old Ford Taurus X crossover, a model that never caught on despite its capabilities.
Inside, the interior is a notable step up from the previous Explorer. It's fully car-like, and only the rotating Terrain Management System knob on the console--with a center button for Hill Descent Control--gives away its off-pavement capabilities.
The 2011 Explorer offers two engine choices, but Ford will likely spend far more time discussing the smaller of the two: a 2.0-liter EcoBoost four developing 237 horsepower that puts out 250 foot-pounds of torque--as much as the 4.0-liter V-6 base engine in the previous Explorer.
Ford is expanding its efficient EcoBoost engines aggressively into more vehicle lines, and the 2011 Explorer is the second for the direct-injected, turbocharged EcoBoost four; that engine will also appear in the 2011 Ford Edge five-seat crossover.