There's a massive grey area in the SUV/crossover segment. What's truly a crossover, and what's more a sport-ute?
The Explorer wants it both ways, and it nearly gets it. While the Jeep Grand Cherokee goes out of its way to earn its own internal designation of "trail-rated," the Explorer embraces car-based running gear and a host of electronica to get you about 80 percent of the way to the same destination. Your first clue should be on the spec sheet, where "FWD" (front-wheel drive) is the base drivetrain configuration.
Jeeps can have HEMIs; the 2011 Ford Explorer downsizes itself into a greener pasture, with a standard 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 hooked to a six-speed automatic. Lots of tuning and quieting has sweetened this engine's personality; it's now possible to talk to second-row passengers while you're driving. It also performs better than last year's V-8 Explorer: with 255 pound-feet of torque and lower gearing for its first four gears, it's practically sprightly off the line. Some versions even have a switch to engage a sport mode that speeds up transmission and steering responses. The Flex gets paddles for the same duty--the Explorer's lack of shift paddles means you have to remove a hand from the wheel to engage the mode, but at least the transmission responds quickly to calls for shifts, and has aggressive logic that holds lower gears much more readily than some other automatics.
While the Jeep rides on an SUV architecture spun from the same metal as the Mercedes ML-Class, the Explorer rides on car-based bits. They're beefed up a bit, but there's no mistaking the carlike mien that an independent suspension and electric power steering give this new Explorer. It channels its inner tall wagon with well-quelled ride motions, with the help of its hefty curb weight. It doesn't feel top-heavy, even though it sports nearly 8 inches of ground clearance.
Steering feel is the Explorer's big win. The new ute cuts into corners with zeal and unwinds almost naturally, even though its pump-less steering uses sensors and wires to keep in sync with the road ahead--or to help the Explorer parallel-park itself, an optional feature way up near the most expensive end of the order sheet.
When you order four-wheel drive, Ford heaps on an extra helping of electronics to overcome some of the compromises it's baked in to make the Explorer feel more friendly in everyday driving. It centers around one knob that controls a new multi-mode, terrain-management system. The system can tweak throttle speed, transmission shifts and all the traction needs at each wheel independently in Normal, Mud and Ruts, Sand, and Snow modes. For most drivers, the setup takes out much of the mystery of the proper technique in tackling mud pits, sandy bogs and extreme downhill grades. Turn the knob and the Explorer will trundle right down a road full of alternating deep ruts, for example, using its anti-lock sensors and programming to pick out patches of traction and to make up for a lack of grip. The problem is an esoteric, extreme-user-case one: all those electronics can't smooth over the transitions between slipping the same way a skilled driver can with left-foot braking. And without a real locking differential, the toughest rock crawls will have to be left to other vehicles.
Ford hasn't mentioned a skid-plate package, and the Explorer's tow rating is down to a maximum of 5000 pounds, which the company reckons is a sweet spot for its customers--moving trailers, jet skis, and the like are no problem.If you're ready to quibble over the Explorer's lack of frame rails, its lack of a low gear ratio, its electronics takeover, and its good, not great, towing capability, you're missing the greater point. Ford finally has admitted that nearly all of its Explorer buyers are fine with less ultimate off-road capability, while they want better ride and handling, better fuel economy, and more refinement--the kinds of things that only come with car-based underpinnings. On those terms, the new Explorer's dynamically a big win.