2011 Ford Explorer
In motor vehicles as in life, the mighty sometimes fall—and fail. But they can rise again.
The 2011 Ford Explorer is poised to validate that historical scenario. For more than a decade after its introduction in 1990, it was the best-selling sport utility vehicle on the market, hitting a peak of 445,000 in 2000.
It declined shortly after the turn of the millennium and a recall of millions of defective original-equipment Firestone tires.That, combined with subsequent gasoline price increases and consumer disillusionment with thirsty truck-based SUVs, brought Explorer sales to a fraction of those in its heyday. Sales totaled just 52,190 in the recession year of 2009 and improved only slightly in 2010.
The original Explorer was a creature of its time—an era in which consumers idolized truck-based SUVs with body-on-frame construction, powerful V6 and V8 engines, the capability to tow heavy loads, and rear-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive for going off-road.
Now the trend is away from SUVs and toward a broad category dubbed crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs. Generally speaking, they are based on cars instead of trucks, with unit body construction, more economical four- and six-cylinder engines, and front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
The Explorer exactly reflects the trend. The 2010 model was a truck-based SUV, the fifth generation since the 1991 model. But the 2011 model, the subject here, is a unit-body crossover, though it retains some SUV strength characteristics such as the capability to tow up to 5,000 pounds.Like other manufacturers, Ford reasoned that customers now are focused on a better balance between on- and off-road capabilities, more flexibility, a better ride and interior comfort, and enhanced fuel economy. Given the growing popularity of such CUVs as Honda’s compact CR-V, it seems like a no-brainer.
But Ford ratchets the equation up several notches by designing the Explorer, along with of some its other newer vehicles, as a rolling package of high-technology communications and entertainment functions. Frank Davis, Ford’s executive director of North American Operations, only barely kidding, said it wasn’t far off the mark to say that the Explorer was built around its high-tech systems.
The systems, MyFord Touch and SYNC, are comprehensive, mind-boggling to the technology challenged and, at least at the outset, controversial. They do so many things and require so much driver involvement that some safety experts and reviewers, including this one, question whether they entail so many distractions that they can compromise safety.
Ford’s experts insist that the systems were designed to minimize distractions, and that they in fact involve no more disruption than a driver tuning the radio on a 1970 automobile.
When you look at what the Ford systems encompass, including functions of laptop computers, mobile phones, music players and digital cameras—operated by a dizzying array of buttons, touch-screen controls and voice commands—the assertion is difficult to believe, though just as hard to contradict given the widespread technology savvy of even 10-year-olds.
However, what Ford calls “the driver interface revolution” does deliver one major distraction. So much attention is paid to the electronic wizardry that it’s easy to nearly overlook the Explorer itself, which in most respects is a tour de force of a new crossover utility vehicle.
Start with the styling, which of course is the most important element in a buyer’s choice of vehicles. Nobody wants to see or be seen in something perceived as ugly or ordinary.
The Explorer is neither. It doesn’t look anything like its predecessor, yet it retains an aggressive, thrusting appearance as it rolls down the road. From the rear, it has a squat, wide stance that bespeaks stability and control around curves.
It is not an illusion. Though it doesn’t have the quick moves of a Ford Mustang, the Explorer hunkers down and works its way around corners with a minimum of body roll or what the engineers like to call “head toss.”
Power comes from a 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine linked to a six-speed automatic transmission with either front-drive or all-wheel drive. It’s an adequate combination for anything most drivers will encounter, but it doesn’t get the adrenaline flowing, either.Of course, that’s not the point. It does have enough juice to enable the towing of up to a 5,000-pound trailer, along with a full load of passengers and gear.
The new Explorer now comes with three rows of seats, which means it can carry up to seven passengers, although with 21 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row, most of their stuff will have be carried outside on the luggage rack.
Just four of the seats deliver full comfort; the center position in the second row is a punishing perch and the two seats in the third row have limited knee and head room. Still, the three rows make the Explorer competitive with such CUVs as the Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango and Honda Pilot.
Base price of the front-drive Explorer is $28,995. The tested all-wheel drive Limited, with a full complement of the aforementioned MyConfusion stuff, had a sticker of $45,160.