Overall power was a nice surprise when we first took off on our test drive in the new Explorer. The base engine will be the all-new (for Explorer), all-aluminum, transverse-mounted 3.5L DOHC V-6 with Ford's new computer controlled intake valve timing system, rated at 290 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 255 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. Clearly this engine is tuned to make high-end power, but is helped by the fact the six-speed transmission has a nice and strong 4.48:1 First gear so launches off the line make you feel like you have tons of torque, and with only a single overdrive (at 0.74:1) there are plenty of gear choices, making a hard pull up a long hill feel strong and confident. At the track, the new V-6 Explorer ran our 0-60 test quite close to the last Explorer we tested (for our 2006 Motor Trend of the Year), but that vehicle had 4.6L V-8. Running through the 0-60 traps in 7.9 seconds with a quarter-mile time of 16.1 sec. @ 88.6 mph, this new Explorer is quicker and faster than most of its rivals (exceptions include the lighter 2011 Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander non-Hybrid). Additionally, although EPA numbers aren't out yet, our best guess is likely to be 20 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. Of course, the big powertrain news is that Ford will offer an EcoBoost option next year in the form of the 2.0L turbocharged I-4 that is reported to offer 30-percent better fuel economy than the V-6, with similar or better power numbers.
We were a little disappointed Ford didn't give us a chance to do any towing on their event but they did make a big deal about the fact their customers won't be towing that much so they didn't see any reason to offer more than a 5000 pound maximum tow rating. We're guessing that has more to do with the capabilities of the Taurus chassis and the coming SAE towing standards than anything else. Still, Trailer Sway control is standard and there is an option for a Class III hitch.
Taking the new Explorer off the pavement turned out to be great fun, even though it will not offer a dedicated low range gear and transfer case anymore. Instead, Ford has opted for a new, computer controlled all-wheel drive setup called a Terrain Management System (TMS) that looks and works like Land Rover's Terrain Response and Jeep's Selec-Terrain systems, where a single dial allows the driver to choose an off-pavement setting. Each of the four setting (Sand, Mud & Ruts, Gravel/Snow, and Normal) effects the throttle response, traction control, steering inputs, and gear selection in order to provide the optimum traction, keeping the driver and passengers safe and having fun. Additionally, we had the chance to take an AWD XLT Explorer into the mountains north of San Diego on several steep and rugged trails, as well as some high-speed dirt roads. Our bottom line assessment is that there are no surprises here. The system does a nice job of separating the different TMS setting, making throttle and traction performance feel different from one setting to the next; however, where the obvious strengths of the chassis are most evident on pavement, its weaknesses are equally obvious when on choppy dirt roads or steeper dirt trails.
The stiffness of the chassis and limited wheel travel of the car platform had us spinning wheels on the light-to-moderate backcountry trail we found. We should note that Ford will be the first to tell you the new Explorer isn't a 4WD rock crawler, but for the sake of full disclosure, the system is even much less than that. To be more correct, this is an all-wheel drive system, not a four-wheel drive system (Ford mistakenly calls this new Explorer a "4WD"). Even on some of the flatter surfaces, the unibody chassis is not setup to deal with the rougher inputs and harsh hits a rutted dirt road can offer. Still, we did have a blast with the TMS set to "Sand" and running at higher speeds on some wide-open desert roads with the wheels spinning, trying to hang out the back end. We're guessing there are plenty of Explorer intenders out there that will appreciate having these soft-roader settings to keep them safe, or at least, confident when the weather turns bad. But make no mistake; this is a smart-computered soft-roading all-wheel drive crossover wearing some very sharply styled SUV clothing. We'd be more comfortable if Ford called this their most serious crossover rather than pretending it is still a real SUV. Nitpicky? Probably, but we think it's a distinction worth noting.