After patiently sitting through Ford Motor Company's look-but-don't-drive preview, we doubted whether the car-based 2011 Explorer really deserved its name. Seeing as the new Explorer shares much with FoMoCo's D-platform (Taurus/Flex/Lincoln MKS/MKT), perhaps Ford's naming committee should have chosen something less adventurous, such as Taurus X, Freestyle, or the long retired Country Squire.
"Drifting Don" Ufford convinced me otherwise. Riding shotgun, your author watched Explorer's chief engineer flog his team's crossover through deep sand and along rutted desert trails that would have stopped a typical crossover dead.
Ufford came by the Drifting Don moniker naturally, given the desert location south of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates where Ford held the final HVAC and all-wheel-drive system durability testing. Ufford told MT, "The area we're testing in is frequented by the locals in the cooler months. Nobody's dumb enough to come out here now; it's too hot. But in the winter they picnic here and run their 4x4s across the desert. One of their favorite activities is dune surfing."
On cue, Ufford arced the Explorer down into a 100-yard-wide bowl of sand. Dropping about two stories, Ufford blasted across the bottom to shoot up the other side. The Explorer bit in, then responded to Ufford's steering input. Ufford traversed the opposite incline, tempting a rollover. With the nose pointed slightly uphill, the Explorer "surfed" a nearly horizontal path around the upper edge of the bowl, dramatically throwing out four rooster tails of sand.
Midway through this dynamic bit of driving, Ufford asked an engineer in the back seat to report temperatures on the power take-off unit (PTO), rear driveline clutch, and rear differential. Although we were having fun, Ufford and company continued to focus on the durability testing.
When the ambient temperature is 48°C/119°F, tracking component temperatures is critical. Ufford wants the new Explorer to survive in any conditions, especially those people would consider worst case. Given that one of the Ford engineers had his shoes melt out from under his feet, Dubai's desert was looking pretty close to worst case. Factoring in the 50-percent humidity made for a heat index of 191° Fahrenheit. A dry heat it's not.
The lightly camouflaged Explorer in the accompanying photos is a pre-production prototype. (Bad duct tape stripes are nowhere on the 2011 Explorer optional features list.) The unit was outfitted with dozens of sensors and monitors to track the survival or failure of key systems and components in Dubai's skin-searing heat. Especially interesting were the guy-wires stretched laterally across the first and second row of seats. Small spirals of wires -- temperature-sensing thermo couples -- branched off the main stretches, feeding interior temperature data to the laptop mounted in the second row.
"Those sensors measure the temperature of the air at eye level, around your H-point and at the floor,” Ufford explained. “We need to make sure we've got good coverage in each zone. This kind of heat and humidity makes it really tough to hit our targets, and we've had to make some upgrades to our system in order to make sure the AC system works."
MT later learned that most of the cooling upgrades identified in Dubai would make it into U.S. vehicles, giving Stateside drivers the benefit of extra capacity developed for the Middle East market. But the AC isn't the only thing the team was checking.
After spending several hours in the desert, it was clear the Explorer was not simply a re-skinned Flex. The powertrain had the ability to slog through deep sand and over obstacles that would foil traditional crossovers such as the Chevrolet Traverse, Toyota Highlander, or Kia Sportage. Unlike these vehicles, the Explorer's PTO can deliver power to the rear axle continuously and at all speeds. Typical systems can overheat when used off-road and/or disengage over certain speeds. Furthermore, while the rear differential is an open unit, individual rear brake application makes the entire assembly work as if the unit is a limited-slip.
As important, Ford's Terrain Management software package is tuned to add useful performance, not discourage it. In the Sand mode (there are also modes for snow and mud, as well as normal pavement), it provided aggressive throttle response and held the vehicle in lower gears longer, making it easier to stay on top of the sand instead of sinking in.
Proving the team's experience off-road, the Sand mode also controlled the response of the engine as the driver lifted off the throttle. In Sand, power reduces gradually to help the Explorer maintain its momentum, preventing the wheels from literally stopping in their tracks and pushing the sand like four snow shovels. The Sand mode also allows for the increased vehicle yaw that is a normal part of driving in such conditions. Ufford explained that the vehicle's anti-roll control was still functional, so if a rollover seemed imminent, Ford's Advance Trac would activate and calm things down.
Testing the chassis changes, Ufford took on some big off-road obstacles. Several demanded the crossover's entire length of suspension travel, and then some. The new jounce bumpers controlled the energy so there was no unpleasant metal-to-metal/suspension-to-chassis crashes.
Ford knows that buyers won't compare the 2011 Explorer to the new Nissan Pathfinder or Toyota FJ Cruiser. Certainly, the Explorer couldn't begin to keep up with these purposefully engineered off-roaders. What Ford seems to be delivering is a more capable crossover that can make it in places most crossovers can't. The Explorer remains limited by the lack of a two-speed transfer case and its rather modest approach and departure angles.
On-road, the 2011 Explorer proved less of a surprise: You expect a crossover to handle pavement with the same acumen as a standard passenger car. From the right front seat, the ride was quiet and well-damped. While the latter characteristic was expected, I wondered about the quietness as we drove out of the desert and back to Ford's Dubai service garages.
Typically, beat-on pre-production prototypes tend to have more road and wind noise than full production vehicles. Plus, prototypes tend to squeak and rattle. Our particular vehicle was also lacking the front-passenger side inner fender well. It was ripped from its mounts before my eyes during one particularly enthusiastic dune-bashing romp.
Even in its compromised condition, at modest highway speeds our test Explorer seemed quiet. Admittedly, the roads into Dubai were straight and smooth, and because of numerous speed cameras, Ufford kept our speeds down. Stay tuned for a full road test later this year.
While enjoying the air conditioning at the Ford garage, MT asked Ufford if this testing actually benefited the Explorer. He said his team identified cooling system issues that would benefit all markets, and that Dubai's fine sand composition helped with the final tuning of the Terrain Management system.
Terrain Management…now that's a feature you'd never find on a Country Squire.