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The 2011 Ford Explorer. (Ford Ford)
The 2011 Ford Explorer. (Ford Ford)

2011 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD

Explorer's return to glory Add to ...

Ford's new 2011 Explorer is bigger, more stylish, loaded with neat gear inside, has improved on-road performance including better fuel economy, offers higher levels of dynamic and passive safety, has a subtly different personality and, well, loads of other stuff - but is all this enough to polish up this once top seller's faded lustre?

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As was the case with potential buyers I'd steered clear of the Explorer since its last major overhaul for 2006, figuring this vehicle, that largely defined the sport utility segment for so many years - Ford had sold some 5.5 million by that time - had become irrelevant. Its reputation had been damaged by tire-related rollovers and its role as a family vehicle had been usurped by the new crossovers and as a status symbol by save-the-planet peer pressure.

But Ford, not about to allow a franchise like the Explorer's to disappear without a fight, addressed both issues by making the new one more on-road-oriented and crossover-y and thus less likely to inspire owners to wander off road and crush delicate flora and fauna. And by limiting engine choices to a V-6 and a four-cylinder, albeit turbocharged, to significantly reduce its thirst for our vital planetary fluids.

And it's working. It's unlikely, given the ongoing market switch to crossovers, that Explorer will ever sell in the plus-400,000 numbers of a decade ago, but its reception since its introduction last December has been positive and North American sales so far this year have far exceeded last year's total volume.

It's hard to still see the Explorer as a vehicle many would aspire to own simply for the prestige it might provide, as was the case during the SUV's heyday. But it is one many might still have an actual need for in their household fleet. And for most of these, the changes will be viewed positively.

The personality realignment referred to above isn't about style. The Explorer looks every bit like you'd expect a modern SUV to look. But underneath it's no longer a pickup truck in fancy dress.

It already had independent suspension all round, but with this generation it also makes the switch to monocoque (rather than a truck-style body-on-frame) construction. And the traditional low-range transfer case all-wheel-drive system has been replaced with an electronic Terrain Management System. You use a dial to select icons for mud/ruts, snow/gravel/grass, sand, hill descent and normal, and electronics adjust various engine and transmission parameters to suit.

It is still capable of taking on some seriously nasty terrain, but along with the subtle rewording of its capability in the press material - "any road, any time, anywhere"- these changes indicate a new crossing-over orientation. Not a big deal really, as few used their Explorers for serious off-roading anyway.

It can't tow as much either, though, and this would seem to be a more important selling point. It's now limited to 2,270 kg, a bit less than last year's six was rated at but about 1,000 kg less than the V-8. The four will manage only 907 kg. You'll have to step up to the Expedition if you've got serious hauling requirements.

And the V-6 will be working hard if asked to tow the same again as the Explorer weighs, although it does a more than capable job of moving the vehicle itself around. The 3.5-litre V-6 is rated at 290 hp (just shy of twice as much as the original 1990 model) and produces 255 lb-ft of torque.

The six-speed automatic uses this to effect, providing good off-the-line acceleration - it gets to 100 km/h in a more than quick enough 8.5 seconds or so - and around-town poke. And also much improved economy with ratings of 12.5 litres/100 km city and 8.8 highway versus last year's 4.0-litre V-6's ratings of 16.2 city/10.9 highway. Real-world highway cruising returns 11.5 litres/100 km.

Any vehicle this big, tall and heavy isn't going to be agile but the Explorer handles well if you don't rush it and offers up no surprises, along with a firm but fluid ride.

The longer and wider shadow this new seven-seat Explorer casts adds to interior room for passengers and behind the third-row seat suitable for children, but overall capacity with all seats folded is down a bit at 2,378 litres. There's little to find fault with inside in terms of equipment, function, comfort or style. An exception being the ignition lock, a nasty, loose and rattle-y device.

A base but well-equipped front-drive Explorer starts at $29,995, upped to $32,999 with AWD. A front-drive XLT goes for $35,899 and the AWD XLT as tested here for $38,899 with the line-topping Limited priced from $41,199.

With this fifth-generation effort, Ford appears to have steered the Explorer - still a behemoth but at least one that leaves a lighter imprint - back onto a more hopeful path into the future.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2011 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD

Type: Mid-size SUV

Base Price: $38,899; as tested, $47,379

Engine: 3.5-litre, DOHC, V-6

Horsepower/torque: 290 hp/255 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.5 city/8.8 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner, Kia Borrego

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