2011 Ford Explorer: First Look at Ford's Most Important New SUV

July 25, 2010

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.

STYLING

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 Explorer

2011 Ford Explorer

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.

PERFORMANCE

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.

Derrick Kuzak, Ford's global product development chief, promised that the 2011 Explorer with EcoBoost would equal the fuel efficiency of some V-6 midsize sedans. And, overall, there's that 30-percent improvement in fuel efficiency.

Ford says the Explorer's other engine, a 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, equals the power of the previous model's optional 5.0-liter V-8, with fuel economy that's 32 percent better. Like the EcoBoost four, the V-6 has twin independently timed overhead camshafts.

The designers and engineers have done everything possible to improve gas mileage, from weight savings--chief engineer Holland says the 4x4 model is roughly 100 pounds lighter than its predecessor despite increased passenger space--to better aerodynamics, with a drag coefficient 12 percent better (from 0.40 to 0.35).

The EPA has not yet issued gas mileage ratings for any model of the 2011 Ford Explorer. Kuzak says both engines will offer the best fuel economy in class.

We weren't able to drive a 2011 Explorer at the technical briefing we attended, so we can't vouch for its on-road behavior.

COMFORT & QUALITY

Befitting its high stance, as well as the need to meet upcoming safety regulations, the door and tailgate openings of the 2011 Explorer are rather smaller than the doors themselves would indicate. The rear side door entries in particular are narrower than you might expect, and the climb in threatens to dirty the pant legs if the vehicle has actually gone off-road.

That said, fit and finish appear to be first rate, and Ford repeatedly pointed to Audi and other German makes as their benchmark for material quality and consistency, surface textures, and minimal gaps between adjoining components inside and out.

SAFETY

The 2011 Explorer is the world's first vehicle to offer inflatable safety belts, for the two outboard seats in the second row. Those are what Ford calls the "family oriented seats," where both children and older passengers are likely to ride.

They're the people most vulnerable to injuries in serious accidents even when belted in. The inflatable belts spread the restraint load over an area more than twice as large, reducing the force on any specific body part--and they also inflate high enough up to restrain forward head motion.

With almost 50 percent of the vehicle's structure made of some variety of high-strength steel, it's been engineered to stay stiff while remaining as light as possible.

It also has a blind-spot warning system, cross-traffic alert, radar-based adaptive cruise control with brakes that apply themselves above 25 or 30 mph if a collision is unavoidable, and a new curve control feature that slows the vehicle as much as 10 mph a second (and illuminates the brake lights) if it enters a curve too fast.

The standard set of airbags includes pressure sensors in the doors that deploy bags quicker, and side canopies that are also triggered if the car rolls over, deploying more slowly but staying inflated for 6 seconds after the accident.

Ford's Sync system not only adds 911 Assist, which dials local emergency responders through a Sync-connected phone in the event of an accident, but also SOS Post-Crash Alert. That new feature triggers the car's horn and emergency flashers and keeps them on until one passenger opens a door or cycles the ignition key.

FEATURES

The 2011 Ford Explorer will be the second vehicle offered with the MyFordTouch system unveiled earlier this year. It lets drivers operate many of the car's functions--from entertainment to climate control,  not to mention telephone and other potential distractions--via voice commands.

The system uses a display on the center stack that sorts various vehicle functions into four color-coded groups: Phone, Navigation, Entertainment, and Climate. Using several combinations of voice commands and touch-screen options, drivers can change settings with, Ford claims, far less distraction.

Responding to concern over distracted driving, Ford has also added in a "Do Not Disturb" function that sends all incoming calls from a Sync-linked phone directly to voice-mail, and holds incoming texts to be read only when the driver is not on the road.

Ford claims 12 class exclusives for the 2011 Explorer, in safety, connectivity, and features. They include Ford's very good active parking-assist system, LED ambient interior lighting, and the capless EasyFuel system.

And Ford's MyKey system, which lets parents set limits on certain vehicle parameters--radio volume, maximum speed, seatbelt usage--for new or teenaged drivers, comes standard.

Ford provided airfare and lodging so that High Gear Media reporters could bring you these details of the 2011 Ford Explorer. 

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