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Reinvention's become the calling card of Detroit in this new century. GM and Chrysler are fundamentally different companies than they were before their bankruptcies, and both are surging on the strength of new vehicles like the Equinox and the Grand Cherokee.
The reinvention's been most dramatic, though, at Ford. Without going through the agita of restructuring, Ford's simply banked everything it owns on a new range of Blue Oval-branded cars, trucks and crossovers.
None are more important to the company's image than this new 2011 Ford Explorer. In the 1990s, the Explorer nameplate fell out of the sky, after a devastating tire recall knocked it from the best-selling list. Then rising gas prices took their shot at the fallen SUV. And then Ford had its own near-miss with insolvency.
Today, Ford's house is in order, and the total transformation of the Explorer from truck-based sport-ute to family-friendly crossover is complete. And not just complete, but convincing. It's dropped most of its go-anywhere pretense, and instead sends reassuring messages to all those old Explorer owners--six million of them--that this new vehicle is better than ever on the pavement, while it still keeps some of its trail-riding talents on reserve.
The new Explorer is part of the car-based family that also counts the Flex, even the Taurus, as its members--but driving it in V-6 trim proves that it's "SUV" enough for anything short of the heaviest of off-road duties. It looks the sport-ute part, but drives more like the Taurus, with well-tuned electric steering and a finely damped ride. True to SUV form, it's also a little taller and stubbier than Ford's own curb feeler, the seven-passenger Flex, but still plenty spacious, not to mention handsome and well-fitted. It's also promising to be a safety leader, with new features like inflatable rear seatbelts--all the better to shine up its tarnished reputation. And there's no escaping the fascinating MyFord Touch, which lets you guide secondary controls with a fingertip or your voice, instead of buttons--even if it's forcing casual consumers to re-learn a few things.
From the same pieces, the seven-passenger Explorer is the yin to the seven-seat Flex's yang, even if the big boxes can't interlock with the same graphic perfection. It's a tremendous vehicle--and it's this year's North American Truck of the Year, as voted by this continent's most respected journalists.
Is the 2011 Ford Explorer the "21st-century SUV," as Ford likes to suggest--or is it a different strain of the same crossover DNA? We say the Explorer's no dainty roadflower, and it's more than willing to get some dirt under its fingernails--even if it's a bit shy to tackle the terrain extremes you'll see courtesy the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
- Fine blend of SUV and crossover styling
- Tall, spacious cabin
- Well-wired electric steering
- MyFord Touch's tech revolution
- Far more fuel-efficient than before
Next: Interior / Exterior »
- Not quite the off-roader it once was
- MyFord Touch's learning curve and glitches
- ....wait, we're thinking...