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Detroit's seen a major reinvention in the past few years, with wrenching change at GM and Chrysler. Ford hasn't been left out, except for the financial drama. It's dramatically reworked its lineup of cars to be more fuel-efficient, while subduing its dependence on truck sales.
The case study for change in Dearborn is the Ford Explorer, new for the 2011 model year and with major news for the 2012 model year. The Explorer ditched its old truck-based architecture last year for a set of car-like credentials, and got better in nearly every way as a result.
It's a convincing transformation. The Explorer's V-6 outmatches its old V-8s--and for 2012, there's a turbocharged four-cylinder that still generates horsepower and torque to beat old Explorer V-6s into the dust, while posting EPA-estimated highway gas mileage of 28 mpg. In 2005, 28 mpg got you...a Focus.
Since it shares running gear with the likes of the Flex, even the Taurus, the new Explorer can't quite hit the trails with the likes of the Grand Cherokee. That leaves it more equipped to excel at on-road handling, which it does convincingly with quick steering and terrific ride control that's due in equal part to an independent suspension and its still-substantial curb weight.
It's one of the safest vehicles Ford builds, with inflatable rear seat belts and rearview cameras and blind-spot detectors. The 2012 Explorer also woos gearheads of another kind with MyFord Touch, the convoluted but promising system that uses voice, button or touchscreen control to govern infotainment and other vehicle functions.
The Explorer still looks reassuringly ute-like, though its rounded corners and subtle details register on a carlike plane, while the interior does its best impression of a Taurus sedan. And in truth, it does what the wide majority of us want to do in a crossover--it makes plenty of room for lots of people, or lots of stuff, and it does it much more efficiently than it ever did in the past, while holding on to a good bit of the mud-running bona fides that probably remained weekend ambitions for most of their suburban owners.
It's been named a North American Truck of the Year, as voted by this continent's most respected journalists, and it's truly a 21st-century SUV, as Ford wants you to think. A runaway sales hit, too, the Explorer is happiest when it's behaving on the highway--but it's more than willing to get a little dirty when you want to.