2011 Ford Explorer: First Drive

December 12, 2010

Reinvention has become something of a specialty among the domestic automakers. GM's kicked its reputation as being electric-car killers with the 2011 Volt, and Chrysler's axed battalions of quality demons from its lineup with the likes of the new Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

It's Ford that's transformed itself so strikingly: first with the pert Fusion sedan, then with the singular Flex crossover and the clever Fiesta small car, and now, convincingly, with the 2011 Ford Explorer SUV.

With the Edge and the Flex around, why even bother? Answer: There has to be an Explorer in Ford's lineup. In 20 years, the company's sold six million of them, and something like 96 percent of all Americans know the brand name. A smaller percentage of Americans can name our current Vice President. The Explorer was the 1990s version of the 1960s Mustang to the company, and with almost 150,000 former Explorer owners churning through the new-car marketplace every year, bringing out a new one isn't just a good idea, it's MBA 101.

Does it need to be an SUV? The new Explorer, by most measures, is now a crossover vehicle. But it makes some key overtures to the folks who dream of rustic cabins and epic trail rides. It's part of the car-based family that also counts the Flex, even the Taurus, as its members--but after a day of driving in the hills east of San Diego, the Explorer proved itself "SUV" enough for anything short of the heaviest of off-road duties. True to SUV form, it's also a little taller and a little less space-efficient and passenger-friendly than a good crossover vehicle of its size. 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. 

From all angles, a styling success

There's more Explorer in the sheetmetal than anywhere else on the new ute. The body reads as trucky as ever. Walk around its angled sheetmetal and pick up on the slight rolled corners and embossed sides, and the shape telegraphs "SUV" more than you might think possible, since the undergear also comes in Taurus SHO form. It's the new ute's high hood, the tall grille and the thick horizontal ribs, and the distinct angle of the C-pillar that recall old Explorers most fondly--and even the GMC Acadia, to some degree, while not weaving in as much of the Explorer America concept vehicle as it could. The more carlike details, like perforated grille pieces and big winged taillamps and a minivan-ish tailgate, net less attention than the sport-ute talking points. The old Explorer was a truck that pretended to a higher level of sophistication; this one does a Meryl Streep take on the peculiar SUV dialect, nailing the finer points and going a long way to winning you over to its interpretation with a few subtle twists.

Inside, it all falls apart, because for most of its early history the Explorer suffered from a miserable interior. With this edition, Ford says it's beaten Audi and BMW at their own game, and in truth the new Explorer probably is better than Audi's Q7 in some ways. Audis have only grown more plasticky and less subtle over the past half-decade. In the same time span, Ford's acquired a virtuosity in fitting different materials together, first inside the Flex. The convincing attention to materials and textures lifts the Explorer's cockpit into a niche way above the one occupied by the gross-grained Honda Pilot and the spotty Toyota Highlander. The new Jeep Grand Cherokee comes close--the Dodge Durango, a little closer even--but the Explorer's nifty blend of LCD gauges and screens, those exclamation points of metallic plastic on the center stack, and the tight fits between lots of dissimilar pieces, make the cabin exceptional. It's a peak Audi wishes it still could hit in any of its sub-$50,000 vehicles.
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