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.
Yes, the towing capacity drops from the old truck's range of 5115-7115 to 2000-5000 pounds, so devotees of the big Airstream International campers will have to bump up to an Expedition. And no amount of electrickery will coax this all-wheel-drive system up and over the rocks an old Explorer was technically capable of scaling. But the truth is that the days when 400,000 people would buy a vehicle with those capabilities (most of whom never needed them) are gone, and the buyers flocked in droves to the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. This is the vehicle Ford hopes will lure those folks back.
The bodywork itself stretches 3.7 inches longer and 5.2 inch wider, while standing almost two inches shorter. The wheelbase is 1.1 inch shorter and the 67-inch track width is 5.2-6.1 inches broader. Inside, there's 5.1 cubic feet more passenger space, but 3.0 cubes less overall cargo volume with all seats folded. If you opt for the sunroof, headroom reductions bring the passenger space down to even with the old truck. The standard third-row seat (with optional power folding) is considerably narrower than the previous model's, but boasts a welcome 0.4 inch more headroom. My 5-foot-10-inch frame fits comfortably enough to ride a modest distance in the way back, which bodes well for the Explorer's aptitude as a cross-country road-trip-mobile for larger families with teens. Optional Sony sound and MyFord Touch will further enhance the quality of life inside the Explorer. The latter, which is already rolling out in other Ford and Lincoln products is a cutting-edge user-interface, which permits control of myriad phone, nav, entertainment, and climate by your choice of simple, conversational voice, via steering-wheel five-way controller buttons, or by touch-screen. The Sync system will also feature a Do Not Disturb feature to block incoming calls or texts when desired. Addresses can be sent to your car using Google's "Send to Sync" feature, and Sirius Travel Link will even read you your horoscope, stock prices, or sports scores.
The design is dominated by the fairly carlike three-bar grille and prominent body-color C-pillar, which is emphasized by the blacked-out A-, B-, and D-pillars. There are surprisingly few styling cues directly connecting this vehicle with its predecessor, but when the brand enjoys (a reported) 96 percent name recognition, with 140,000 Explorer customers returning to the dealership each year, Ford may have the luxury of making a clean break and moving forward. Interior design is simple, straightforward, and (on the high-spec models displayed) of apparently high-quality execution.
Safety is a priority with customers in the segment (and a potential sensitive spot where the Explorer name is concerned), so Ford is leaving no acronym out. There's AdvanceTrak with Roll Stability Control, Trailer Sway Mitigation, and Curve Control; optional collision warning with brake support (when collision is predicted, the brakes apply as soon as the driver lifts off the accelerator); Blind-Spot Information System; plus a full complement of airbags including optional inflatable rear seatbelts that greatly improve safety of kids in booster seats, providing head and neck protection and reducing belt loading on small bones. Ford's MyKey parental-control device is standard, and the body is composed of twice as much high-strength steel, including boron steel reinforcement of the A- and B-pillars.
Ford engineers swear the Explorer can venture farther off road than most customers would ever dare, thanks to the four-position Terrain Management System (developed entirely in-house, with no Land Rover input) and Hill-Descent Control. The Snow setting calls up a very languid throttle response and orders early upshifts to prevent wheelspin. In Sand mode, you need to keep the wheels turning to prevent bogging down, so the throttle map is aggressive, the shift schedule holds lower during low-speed maneuvers, with delayed upshifts when backing out of the throttle and firmer shift feel in 3-2 and 2-1 downshifts. The Mud and Ruts mode is similar to sand, but less extreme, with much less traction control and yaw-stability intervention. Bottom line: High-range gearing, ground clearance, and all-season tires mean today's explorers had better stick to the well-beaten trails in this crossover.
Being Taurus-based, the new Explorer will be built alongside it and the Lincoln MKS on the same assembly line in Chicago, which will add a second shift in November to accommodate the extra demand. It's hoped this bodes well for initial quality, as JD Power & Associates survey data rates the Taurus and Lincoln MKS quite highly. Ford's quality team has been sweating details like 3.4mm panel gaps, 1.5mm-radii on parts that meet, for extra flush fascia/fender joints, body sealing against wind and road noise, etc.
Will Americans be willing to dig deep for the luxury of driving a two-ton 2.0-liter? No executives on hand at the reveal would guess at the model mix for EcoBoost, but I'd counsel against charging very much for it (or counting on it making a huge contribution to Ford's truck CAFE). Watch for that engine to end up in a front-drive Taurus sedan and for the SHO's EcoBoost V-6 to find its way into a range-topping Explorer. On paper, the new Explorer seems dressed for success, with most of the right stuff--quality, safety, and efficiency--to lure some business back from Honda and Toyota. Stay tuned this fall to learn whether the metal fulfills the paper potential.
Explorer's gas-sipping secrets:
• Direct-injection via side-mounted seven-hole injectors spraying at 2200-2800 psi
• Turbocharger featuring cast stainless steel scroll, anti-surge valve to eliminate "whoosh" sound
• Sodium-filled exhaust valves
• Twin-independent valve control on both cams provide internal EGR, ensure idle quality
• Polished direct-acting valve bucket tappets reduce friction by 0.8 percent
• 9.3:1 compression with adaptive knock control
• Counter-rotating balance shafts
• Air-conditioning compressor output varies with demand
• Alternator employs "smart charging" during deceleration and braking, freewheels when accelerating
• JTEKT all-wheel-drive system weighs far less than a traditional rear-drive vehicle's 4WD or AWD transfer case
• Aluminum suspension knuckles are used at all four corners
• Aluminum hood
• Lightweight seat frames
|2011 Ford Explorer|
|Base price|| $30,000-$40,000 (est) |
|Vehicle layout|| Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 6-7-pass, 4-door, SUV|
|Engines|| 2.0L/237-hp*/250-lb-ft* turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.5L/290-hp/255-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 |
|Transmission|| 6-speed automatic|
|Curb weight|| 4350-4600 lb (MT est) |
|Wheelbase|| 112.6 in|
|Length x width x height ||197.1 x 78.9 x 70.4-71.0 in|
|0-60 mph ||7.0-8.5 sec (MT est) |
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ|| 17-20 / 23-28 mpg (MT est) |
|CO2 emissions ||0.85-1.01 lb/mile (MT est) |
|On sale in U.S.|| December, 2010|
|*Running premium fuel, recommended not required (regular fuel output N/A).|