Ford's marketing team and dealer sales network will have their work cut out for them educating buyers about this, the newest Explorer since the 1991 original. It bears practically nothing in common with every previous Explorer except the name, the two-box shape, and the basic size. Gone are the ladder frame and optional V-8 engine that made 7115-pound towing possible. The low-range transfer case and 8.3-inch ground clearance that permitted heavy bushwhacking are likewise deleted from the order form. Also broomed: the thirsty, cast-iron 4.0-liter V-6, the high center of gravity that doubtless played some role in the Firestone rollover unpleasantness, and (with any luck) much of the negative baggage that now seems to go with old-school off-roading SUVs.
The Explorer embarks on its third decade thoroughly reimagined as a tall, roomy, square-shouldered Taurus wagon that substitutes state-of-the-art Terrain Management electronics for heavy mechanical gear to maintain progress when exploring off pavement in snow, mud, or sand. The base drivetrain is a high-tech DOHC 3.5-liter aluminum V-6 good for 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque (that's down two horses and 60 pound-feet from the outgoing 4.6-liter V-8). The optional engine buyers will pay extra for is an exotic turbocharged, intercooled, and direct-injected 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder (yes, America, you read that right: The big engine is standard, the little one costs extra) hailing from Valencia, Spain. It whooshes up 237 horses and 250 pound-feet on premium fuel (recommended, not required, but performance will drop on regular). That's 27 more horses and just four fewer pound-feet than the old 4.0-liter V-6 produced. Both bolt up to six-speed automatics spinning the front wheels, with the option of a JTEKT all-wheel-drive system (it features a clutch at the rear differential that engages when wheelslip is detected or as directed by Terrain Management and other electronic systems).
These engines and transmissions conspire with weight savings of about 100 pounds and an aerodynamic improvement of 12 percent (yielding a 0.35 drag coefficient, thanks to 260 hours in the wind tunnel) to reduce fuel consumption in the 3.5L Explorer by 20 percent relative to its 4.0L rear-drive forebear. The EcoBoost front-driver reportedly does 30 percent better than the best last-gen truck. Official fuel-economy figures are not yet available, but we're told the most fuel-efficient Explorer will match a Camry V-6 for highway fuel economy (28 mpg). That's an impressive leap for one generation.