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.

Soft-pedaling the ute part

Whenever two paths diverge in a yellow wood, it's the SUV's job to take the one less traveled, while the crossover takes the next exit to Starbucks. With the Explorer, you'll find plenty of reason to press down the first path, though ultimately you might get stuck and never make it for the coffee.

There's something to the duality of the Explorer and Grand Cherokee, after all: Jeep goes out of its way, literally, and has gone off-message on occasion to make the Grand Cherokee "trail-rated." The Explorer always has been happier as an all-weather hauling and towing wagon. It's largely true in this year's rematch as well, since the Explorer uses a V-6 and all-wheel drive with electronic controls to expand its crossover talents, while the Jeep sticks with a few flavors of four-wheel drive and HEMI backup power to drive home its off-street cred.

One powertrain showed up in San Diego for our first drive--Ford's 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and its conjoined twin, a six-speed automatic. It's as widely used as Nissan's six-cylinder, six-speed combo--only in the Explorer, lots of tuning and quieting has sweetened its personality plenty, making it possible to hold conversations between the first and second rows without raising your voice. With 255 pound-feet of torque and lower gearing for its first four gears, the Explorer's practically sprightly off the line. The base version does without, but the upmarket versions have a sport mode with a switch to toggle through the gears, mounted on the gearshift. It's a little odd that shift paddles are available on the Flex crossover, while the small button on the Explorer's shift lever sits stranded, forcing you to remove a hand from the wheel--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.

Ford's prepping a 237-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder for this new Explorer, and it's claiming fuel-economy improvements of 32 percent for that powerplant. We weren't able to drive it--it's not available until mid-2011--but the V-6's fuel-economy ratings of 17/25 mpg likely go lower for all-wheel-drive versions. Our Explorer XLT AWD netted a nice, round 20 mpg in our mixed-elevation drive. Ford says its pending EPA numbers are a 25-percent improvement over the previous Explorer's base V-6; they're also a bit better than the Flex's 17/24 mpg, and a boost over the Grand Cherokee V-6's 16/23 mpg.

The Jeep rides on an SUV architecture derived from the Mercedes ML-Class and GL-Class utes. The Explorer's car-based bits have been beefed up a bit, but the independent suspension and electric power steering give it a more carlike mien than the Jeep--which itself has made huge progress in removing the rocks from its shoes. The Explorer's driving character exudes tall wagon: ride motions are quelled as much by the balance between springs and shocks and all-season tire treads, as by its substantial curb weight. There's nearly 8 inches of ground clearance and yet the Explorer doesn't feel top-heavy. The big triumph is in steering feel, where the Explorer 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.

Ford grafts a multi-mode, electronically-controlled traction system to four-wheel-drive Explorers, to adapt it for more intense off-roading. The terrain-management system cropped up on the latest generation of Land Rovers, and it does a lot to take the mystery out of tackling mud pits, sandy bogs and extreme downhill grades. 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, all controlled by a single rotating knob. Sparing some of the details, the system gives newbies more confidence, while experienced off-roaders probably will trust and prefer their own feet and hands.  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--but it can't smooth over the transitions between slipping the same way a skilled driver can with left-foot braking. The Explorer's technology is most impressive on downhill runs, where a tap on the brakes will slow it to a speed where Hill Descent Control can take over. No doubt it's safer for most drivers; the rest will factor themselves out, just as the Explorer factors out their know-how.

Ford hasn't mentioned a skid-plate package, and the Explorer's tow rating is down to 5000 pounds--more evidence for better self-awareness, maybe.

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.


The inside story

The 2011 Ford Explorer won't match a Flex for the kind of horizontally appealing space that makes it easier to load people and cargo. Still, the seven-seat Explorer lays out its cubic feet and features with swell attention to headroom and easy access. The front seats support driver and passenger in the car-seat spectrum, with softer cushions and active headrests that don't press forward too far as on some Fords.

The second-row seat is a little less cozy. Without the sunroof option, headroom soars more than four inches over a six-foot passenger and there's no doubt the Explorer's a wider vehicle than before (by about five inches). Two adults fit easily, with room for a child between. But on Explorers with a second-row bench, the bottom cushion is short, and it tilts down at its front edge a little. Since it's an "SUV," according to the ads, there's no sliding second-row seat, but levers do make it easier to flip and fold the seats for access to the cramped, kid-sized third-row seat. The second-row bench can be swapped out for buckets; the third row can be optioned up with power controls, to make it fold away with minimum sweat equity.

The Explorer's cargo bin in back is where the least pretty plastics find a home, but it specs out with 21 cubic feet of space behind the third-row seats, and almost 81 cubic feet behind the front seats--almost all available since the Explorer's seats fold flat and offer up a less vulnerable grade of carpeting.

All sorts of safety technologies are integrated into the Explorer's cocoon. Dual front, side and curtain airbags are the beginning; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control and active headrests are another layer of safety. The very latest in protection gear are the rear-seat inflatable seatbelts, blind-spot detectors, adaptive cruise control and "curve control" that predicts tight corners--and brings the Explorer in line before it gets out of line.

Ford has trimmed Explorer prices with the introduction of the new generation. For $28,995, the base Explorer comes with power windows, locks and mirrors; a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; steering-wheel audio controls; cruise control; an AM/FM/CD player and an auxiliary audio jack; and keyless entry. The $31,995 2011 Ford Explorer XLT adds satellite radio; 18-inch wheels; the sport-shift transmission mode; and reverse parking sensors. For $37,995, the Explorer Limited tops out the range with ambient lighting; adjustable pedals; leather seating; power front seats; a Sony audio system; SYNC; pushbutton start; MyFord Touch; a media hub; and a rearview camera. On the options list are MyFord Touch, the LCD-screen-driven system that allows drivers to configure climate, navigation and audio functions with swipe and touch gestures; a media hub with USB ports, SD card reader and RCA jacks for all kinds of gaming plug-ins, even 3G Wifi connectivity; a power moonroof; a navigation system; and a premium audio system. Big 20-inch wheels and the inflatable second-row seatbelts are also options, as are ventilated seats, a power third-row seat, and active park assist.

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 that cultured that uncommon Ford Flex? With some dirt under its fingernails, the Explorer's no dainty roadflower. It's a formidable shot right at the heart of the crossover market--one that's sure to pull some of the remaining SUV loyalists off their very high horses.

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