Ford Explorer looks, feels and drives like a luxury vehicle

Ford Explorer looks, feels and drives like a luxury vehicle

2011 Ford Explorer featured

Ford’s Explorer, which led the market as a midsize SUV for years, has morphed into a classy large crossover.

I drove the highest level Limited 4WD version and it drove beautifully.

The base Explorer with front-wheel drive is reasonably priced at $28,190, and with four-wheel-drive starts at $30,190. There’s a midrange XLT in both two- and four-wheel drive, and then the luxurious Limited starting at $39,365 in the tested 4WD trim.

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Adding pricey options pushed the metallic gray test vehicle to $44,830. But considering it will seat seven, the Explorer not only competes with big crossovers, but could compete with some bigger, taller SUVs like Chevrolet’s Tahoe and Suburban and their GMC cousins.

All Explorers come with the same 3.5-liter Ti-VCT V6 that creates 283 horsepower. All those initials mean it has twin independent variable camshaft timing that delivers a cleaner running engine with better fuel economy. I got 19.1 mpg in about 60% city driving, while the EPA rates it at 17 mpg city and 23 highway. In everyday driving, the Ti-VCT translates into strong, smooth acceleration that lends a luxury feel to Explorer.

Mate that to Ford’s new six-speed Selectshift automatic transmission, and the crossover’s shifts are silky smooth. Selectshift means you can do your own shifting, if you desire. There also is a dial between the front seats that allows you to adjust the type traction you need.

I was surprised at how responsive the steering was in the Explorer. Handling is good and there is good feedback to the steering wheel, so you receive a fairly precise feel, such as what you would expect to find in an Infiniti crossover.

Ride from the MacPherson struts up front and multilink rear suspension, both featuring gas-pressurized shocks, is well controlled, smoothing rough roads. The 112.6-inch wheelbase helps smooth things out, along with 20-inch tires. Standard on the base model are 17-inchers.

I was impressed with its four-wheel disc brakes, and how quickly they stopped the big crossover, which weighs in at 4,695 pounds, about 100 less than the previous Explorer.

Outside, the Explorer looks modern and crisply designed. Inside, the vehicle is luxury-level quiet and shares an equally up-to-date look. However, the electronic controls’ poor ease of use spoiled that for me.

Visually, the test vehicle featured a sophisticated-looking black-over-tan padded dash with small, wood-look trim over the glove box and onto the doors. There’s a black lacquer-like facing around the map/radio screen and dash gauges, plus a glossy black center stack and console to conceal all the electronic touch-screen buttons you need to press.

All this looks great but falls short on functionality while you’re driving. You must use a touch-screen to activate all radio and climate controls with 31 touch points on the stack and console. Figuring out what you need to do is not all that hard, although the radio was tricky. But I found that when wearing gloves, very few touch-screen functions would work. The touch points take a precise touch.

The problem is, you can’t just quick punch a button to change a radio station. It often takes two or three tries. Meantime you’re not watching the road.

[![2011 Ford Explorer interior]( "2011 Ford Explorer interior")](, the vehicle is luxury-level quiet and shares an equally up-to-date look.
Explorer’s main dash gauge cluster is attractive, with a big speedometer/tachometer dial extending from right in front of the driver. All fuel and trip computer readouts were to the sides of that, and the trip computer was very small and hard to read. I’m not sure interior designers are expecting us to drive while using all of these features, which look good but are not big enough to see at a glance.

All the navigation and trip computer functions are controlled via two four-way button clusters on the steering wheel. Not hard to use, but they clutter up the wheel, which is a manual tilt/telescope model.

The rest of the interior is excellent. I loved the soft wide mildly contoured seats. These are three-speed heated and cooled and power adjusted, along with power pedal adjustments for easy driver positioning. The Limited has three seat memory settings.

Explorer’s second-row seats are comfortable, and the third is not bad for sitting, but legroom is limited. Headroom is generous throughout. And I love the Powerfold third-row seat. Open the power rear hatch and buttons inside allow you to stow the third row quickly to expand cargo room. And the two third-row seats can be folded separately if you need cargo room, but are hauling six folks.

Overhead were dual moonroofs, a $1,595 option. A blind spot monitoring system is $495, and worth it. Another $2,000 package included a voice-activated navigation system and the power hatch and power third-row seats.

The electronic key fob is very long, so awkward in a pocket. Ford includes its Sync system from Microsoft to operate your iPod and other musical selections. HomeLink is on the driver’s sun visor and all the visors slide to block side sun.

Explorer is a fine big crossover for family hauling and drives much better than the former truck-based SUV. An overabundance of not-so-simple electronic controls is the main interior concern.

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