Astute readers know we've printed the full tech story (by guru-geek Frank Markus) on all the changes and upgrades for the 2011 Ford Explorer two issues ago (with the full story at back in August) so we won't go into all those same details here. Instead, we want to focus on our driving and testing impression, as Ford rolled out their newest (and dare we say most important) vehicle for examination and evaluation.

Ford is quick to point out that this vehicle is the third most recognized model in their lineup, after F-Series and Mustang. But that doesn't tell the whole story. As recent as five years ago, the Ford Explorer (as a single model--we don't consider the F-150 and F-250/350 the same model) was the best selling vehicle in the Ford stable. In fact, it was the best selling vehicle in the segment from its creation in 1991. Then the Firestone tire debacle occurred and sales fell off a cliff, then the Explorer name and brand was allowed to stagnate without attention or promotion. Still, because of brand equity and, frankly, one of the best automotive names around, the vehicle continued to sell a respectable volume. Then crossovers got more popular and the world economy started to heave. Big changes were needed so when the big decisions were made to completely overhaul the Taurus, big ideas were thrown around the table to make this new D-platform pay off in many ways. What followed were the Edge, Flex, a new Lincoln or two, and finally, a transformed Ford Explorer.

Yes, this new Explorer, as everyone knows by now, is built off the Taurus platform, which brings with it both strengths and weaknesses. To be fair, there are some significant changes to the suspension attach points and arm lengths in order to give the Explorer a taller ride height and better ground clearance (in fact, ground clearance numbers are almost identical to the previous body-on-frame model) than the Taurus sibling. As you might imagine, the road handling feel on twisty mountain roads and around-town cornering is vastly improved and more predictable, largely due to the fact the unibody chassis is stiffly tuned and the track width has been extended more than six inches. It's worth noting the actual wheelbase of the new vehicle is shorter by one inch, but the overall length has increased by four inches. Translation? Both the approach and departure angles have gotten worse so we're guessing new Explorer customers won't be exploring any serious backcountry trails. Still, with most of its time spent in civilization, the improved on-pavement handling dynamics will be the standout feature for most who knew the previous model. The new electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering will likely be a benchmark for the segment as it smoothly and predictably allows the 7-passenger vehicle to change directions calmly and with balance at both slower and higher speeds. In fact, the slower speed boost makes tight navigating almost effortless, yet the whole system tightens up when speeds increase. During our exclusive Figure 8 testing (not something we like to promote doing with an older SUV), we found the new Explorer chassis stayed quiet and predictable, even when we tried to toss it into the corners. However, even with the traction control off (requiring the driver to scroll through four different screens to shut off--we'd like the one-touch button back please!) the computer system will still smooth out any of the unnerving weight-toss by braking an individual wheel as needed. We liked that it wasn't too intrusive.