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First Test: 2011 Ford Explorer

Can the King Come Home Again?

Mark Williams
Dec 17, 2010
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.
Photo 2/30   |   2011 Ford Explorer Front Three Quarter
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.
Photo 3/30   |   2011 Ford Explorer Front
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.
Photo 4/30   |   2011 Ford Explorer In Woods
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.
Photo 14/30   |   2011 Ford Explorer Grille
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.
Photo 15/30   |   2011 Ford Explorer Rear Three Quarter
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.
Photo 16/30   |   2011 Ford Explorer Mirror
Another aspect worth noting is that the vehicle weighs less than the one it's replacing by about 100 pounds. Some of that weight savings cleverly comes from the fact the new Explorer has a fuel tank almost five gallons smaller than the previous one, due in large part to space restrictions, but because the new vehicle is much more fuel efficient (meaning no old V-8), it doesn't need the capacity. That should save the vehicle about 35 pounds right there. Naturally that too will help with fuel economy; however, even with the smaller tank, it still has a slightly better overall range than the one it replaces. And if you look at the numbers, this new Explorer will carry a touch more payload while holding a touch less cubic cargo. Again, we didn't get the chance to load our test vehicle to capacity or get a few hundred pounds in the rear trunk area. We'll have to save that for a later date as well.
Photo 23/30   |   2011 Ford Explorer Center Console
As much as styling is determined by personal tastes, we think the new exterior look is a homerun. It looks both fast and efficient and makes the vehicle look much more imposing and substantial. Blacking out the A- and B-pillars, and canting forward the C-pillar creates a good look for a vehicle competing with many bloated and overinflated competitors. And if the outside is a homerun, the only way to describe the interior is a grand slam. Materials, touch-points, adjoining seams, and the overall layout sets a new standard for Ford. Maybe that sounds like we're over-reaching but it's been a long time since we've seen a Ford interior that didn't make it easy to find where they decided to cut costs. Add to that the push Ford is making to lead every segment in safety and Sync-ability and you begin to see where the biggest of the new Explorer strengths lay. All Explorers have a dizzying array of stability and traction control systems (that even proactively intervene during predicted understeer situations--called Curve Control), as well as an industry first standard front and second row seat-belt airbags. Inside and out, there is plenty that impressed us here.
Ford says this vehicle has been reinvented in order to more closely provide exactly what their customers want now. After much clinic-ing and group research, new Explorer buyers want to tow less, go off-road less, deal with the rough ride less, want more safety features, and prioritize fuel economy ahead of all else, but still want all the creature comforts of a comfy family hauler. Our guess is that this new Explorer will hit that bull's eye dead center and likely blow a hole clean through the target. Whether or not the shrinking segment will bring in new buyers or the Explorer will cannibalize Flex and Edge sale remains to be seen. But be clear--this new Explorer is a strong example of an OE giving intenders just enough of what they think they need. Sure there's enough "connectivity" options to make a computer geek pee his pants, but for those who want to work hard and play hard with their SUV and care more about "just in case" rather than "just enough", there may be better choices.
Photo 24/30   |   2011 Ford Explorer Control Knob
Buyers will have three models this year with the Base, XLT, and Limited pricing starting at $28,995, $31,995, and $37,995 (excluding destination), respectively. And look for the EcoBoost option for 2012 models. However, we'd expect Ford to roll out some interesting upper-crust options later on as well. For what it is, it's not a bad price to value ratio and it should give the competition all they can handle. We can't wait to get one in and test the snot out of it and see. Stay tuned.

2011 Ford Explorer
Vehicle 2011 Ford Explorer XLT AWD
Location of final assembly Chicago Assembly Plant
Body style Four-door SUV
EPA size class Midsize Utility
Drivetrain layout Front engine, AWD
Airbags Front, side, head, f/r seatbelt
Engine type All Aluminum 60-deg V-6
Bore x stroke, in 3.64 x 3.41
Displacement, ci/l 213.4/3.5
Compression ratio 10.8:1
Valve gear DOHC, 24-valve
Fuel induction Sequential multiport electronic
SAE Horsepower, hp @ rpm 290 @ 6500
SAE Torque, lb-ft @ rpm 255 @ 4000
Transmission type 6-speed automatic
1st 4.48:1
2nd 2.87:1
3rd 1.84:1
4th 1.41:1
5th 1.00:1
6th 0.74:1
Reverse 2.88:1
Axle ratio 3.39:1 AWD (3.16:1 FWD)
Final drive ratio 2.51:1
Transfer case model NA
Low range ratio NA
Crawl ratio (1st gear x axle gears) 15.19:1
Recommended fuel Reg. Unleaded
Wheelbase, in 112.6
Length, in 197.1
Width, in 90.2
Height, in 71.0
Track, f/r, in 67.0/67.0
Head room f/m/r, in 39.1/38.3/37.8
Leg room f/m/r, in 40.6/39.8/33.2
Shoulder room f/m/r, in 61.3/60.1/50.8
Total Cargo area volume, cu ft 151.7
Back rows seat down 80.7
Ground clearance, in 8.0
Curb weight, lb 4659 (55/45)
Payload capacity, lb 1591
GVWR, lb 6,250
GCWR, lb 11,000
Max towing capacity, lb 5000
Fuel capacity, gal 18.5
Construction Unibody
Suspension, f/r Short and long arm IFS; Independent multilink IRS coilover shocks
Steering type Electric power assist rack and pinion
Ratio 15.8:1
Turns, lock to lock 2.8
Brakes, f/r 4 Wheel discs
Wheels 10 x 7.0
Tires 245/60R18
Acceleration 0-60 (sec.) 7.9
Standing quarter-mile (sec./mph) 16.1/88.6
Braking 60-0 (ft.) 120
Lateral acceleration (g) 0.77 g (avg)
MT figure eight28.8 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy) 20/25*
Base price $33,190
Price as tested $38,750
All You Need To Know
I have a friend who sells real estate that says everything he needs to know about his clients (meaning how to sell them a new house) can be discerned from the house or apartment they've just moved out of. It seems to me we can tell quite a bit about Ford, GM, and Jeep from what they've done with their next generation midsize SUVs as well.
It wasn't that long ago (let's say six or seven years) that the "Big Three" in the SUV world were the Chevy Trailblazer, Ford Explorer, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. These were the three at the top, before anyone was talking about crossovers and vehicles that offered a more "car-like" ride. Most of the vehicles in this segment were born from either pickup truck foundations or heavier, sturdier underpinnings. They were designed for people who needed more than a car (meaning they had to do work) but also appreciated the idea of having a more civilized comforts interior...and you could lock your valuables inside too. Most offered a transfer case with a separate low range gear, a live rear axle, and a significant V-8 towing option. But that's all changed now.
How Ford, GM, and Jeep decided to solve the problem of what to do with the "next" Explorer, TrailBlazer, and Grand Cherokee as customer desires have changed says a great deal about how these companies understand their business and customers. In fact, we might be seeing the same thing play out as the new Mustang (evolved), Camaro (like new), and Challenger (like old) begin to age in marketplace as well. We've seen it before -- the OEs are chasing an elusive and moving target.
No Delusions Here
GM didn't waste much time once it decided to ditch the TrailBlazer (and its many derivatives) in favor of a more car-like crossover designed for hauling passengers rather than cargo or trailers. From the outset, there were no delusions that they were transforming the TrailBlazer into something else -- something else that would give customers more of what they wanted. It would even have a new name -- the Chevrolet Traverse. They were scrapping one evolutionary line in favor of one they hoped would be stronger and provide more profitability. Issues of lost heritage and core values were minimized with forecasts and trending customer changes. Any thoughts about a vehicle soul were shouted down by the accountants and market data. Now we have the Traverse, Outlook, Enclave, and Acadia.
Delusional Like a Fox
Ford has been letting the Explorer languish for years, knowing something had to be done. The redesigned Ford Taurus held the key as brief discussions of sharing the next Explorer with the Land Rover LR4 began to fade. Ford caught the crossover wave early and they were ready to make it work again, but they couldn't completely abandon the Explorer name or values. The name itself is too strong. But they needed to pitch it as a morph, a reinvention, and a completely new standard. If Alan Mulally has done one thing, it's been to get everyone on the team to think about making a segment leader with each new vehicle they've introduced of late. The new Explorer shares the name but all the metrics have changed to determine what a class leader is now, so they've completely changed the Explorer, transforming (not just evolving) it into something it was not before, with only a wisp of the original soul and core, but it does have the same name.
Sticking to the Script
The new Jeep Grand Cherokee is an interesting example in the sense that so many fingers are in this pie. Originally begun during the DaimlerChrysler days, the new underpinnings (and its Durango sibling) are plenty sturdy and rugged enough to deal with any 4x4 duties anyone could throw at it, as well as including vastly improve on-road dynamics. They knew, from the outset, "it had to be a Jeep", which meant they knew enough to keep the soul and core of the vehicle in line with its heritage. The result is great capability and prowess (where it was pretty good before), with completely new underpinnings. Thanks to a good amount of German engineering, what they got was better on and off-road capability. That's something both the new Explorer and Traverse did not -- both got better on-road handling, but gave away most of the towing and off-pavement fun factor. For Jeep this makes perfect sense, and hopefully Fiat will keep them on track.



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