With the all-new 2011 Explorer, Ford manages not only a successful and well overdue makeover to its popular mid-size SUV, but also more evidence that the term "crossover" and "SUV" are quickly becoming synonymous. Ford and other companies used to boast that their SUVs were "real SUVs," with mechanicals based on those of a pickup truck: a ladder frame for that high view seating, a bulky centre transfer case for 4WD off-road prowess, a V-8 for lots of towing grunt.
The new Explorer offers none of these old-world SUV technologies, but still delivers all of these attributes, though arguably some in diminished amounts. And while they're still calling it an SUV, the latest Explorer's comfortable ride and reassuring safety features finally makes it a more modern and fuel-efficient market player, now on par with that powerhouse of family hauling, the modern minivan.
Helping to reach that new lower fuel consumption mark, the base Explorer comes with a 3.5-litre V-6 that's paired with front-wheel-drive and a six-speed automatic transmission. Along with a 100-kilogram or so weight reduction, this improves fuel economy by up to 20 per cent over the previous 4.0-litre V-6 lump, an engine that had long passed its best-before date.
Yet this new powertrain combination won't generate greater fuel economy numbers than the Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander V-6, two key crossover rivals that Ford is targeting. So in a few months, Ford will offer a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, 237-hp EcoBoost engine, which it says will then drink less than these three-row competitors. Unlike other Ford EcoBoost engines, however, this one will provide more Eco than Boost, with a further 10 per cent reduction in fuel use, but also a higher price tag, estimated to tack on $5,000.
"Fuel economy is one of the main reasons people have left the medium-range utility vehicle," said Nick LaCasse, Ford's marketing manager for all SUVs and crossovers/CUVs, from the Ford Escape on up to the Lincoln Navigator. "Another is its handling [and ride] where body on frames drove like a truck."
Improved ride and handling is another major area of progress with the Explorer. It features a car-like unibody structure that's quieter and more solid, a new advanced four-wheel independent suspension that absorbs road shocks better, and well-sorted-out dampers that control the forward and rearward pitching inherent in rock-crawling truck-based SUVs. True, the Explorer also had a lot of ground to make up in this area to catch up to more modern rivals.
Our particular test SUV had Ford's Terrain Management 4WD system, which offers a dial just below the shifter that can be adjusted simply to Snow, Sand, Tarmac, all of which adjusts the transmission shift points, engine torque characteristics, yaw and throttle control, as well as the electronic stability control settings.
The default normal mode disengages 4WD for better fuel economy, sending power to the front wheels. And while hard-core off-road enthusiasts may miss the ability to lock power evenly among all wheels in a 4-wheel Lo gear, the Explorer's latest 4WD system also comes with Hill Descent Control, which can creep you down a steep hill without having to touch the brakes, just a button on that same dial.
Where the Explorer easily makes the most progress, and is unquestionably now at the front of the pack instead of simply modernly competitive, is on the safety front: a key issue for many owners looking for a family hauler.
In a few months, on the 2012 model, the Explorer will be offering inflatable rear seatbelts, designed to offer extra crash protection to children and elderly passengers, as well as a more comfortable fit that importantly may increase the number of times they're used. Should a crash occur, the belt bags "puff out" instantly to cushion and spread the pressure of the belt on the ribs and torso of the passenger, while still restraining them properly. Ford says it has been working on this system for 10 years, and had to design new crash test dummies to properly test it, ones simulating a child with a head that's slumped over sleeping, for example.
Ford has also added some luxury-level safety features to the options list, such as a blind-spot warning system, a rear-view camera that can be zoomed in and out, cross-traffic alert that tells you to stop poking out the Explorer's nose when you can't see what's coming, an automatic parking system, and trailer sway control, which uses the Explorer's advanced electronic stability control system to help rebalance itself.
There's also some unique technology inside with the MyFord Touch system, standard on the mid-level $35,899 XLT trim and above. Some have called the system too complicated and therefore distracting. It does take some studying to set it up how you want, but the system is much less fidgety here than on the higher-tech Lincoln MKX. Of the 10,000 voice commands it apparently recognizes, it only understood a few I gave it, most of them related to entering navigation directions, which is still much handier than having to stop and punch it in.
All of these toys can add significantly to the price of the Explorer, which starts at a reasonable $29,999, or about $4,500 lower than before, thanks partly to the fact that its 4WD system is no longer standard. But the top-line Limited starts at $44,199, and after more than eight grand of options plus freight, the as-tested total added up to $53,629. That's a lot of coin for a mainstream brand family hauler, even one that holds seven.
But for those who need three rows, admire Ford's recent run of good crash test ratings, and don't like the boxy looks of the Oakville-built Flex, the Explorer just may once again be a worthy minivan alternative.
2011 Ford Explorer
Type: Mid-size six or seven-passenger SUV
Base price: $29,999; as tested, $47,999 (estimated) including freight
Engine: 3.5-litre, DOHC, V-6
Horsepower/torque: 295 hp/255 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.5 city/8.8 highway; regular
Alternatives: Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, GMC Terrain, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander
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